Brad Lander for NYC

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For An On-Ramp to Democracy: Vote YES on All 3 NYC Ballot Questions

Next week at the polls, New York City residents have a genuine opportunity to strengthen our local democracy. The three ballot questions proposed by the NYC Charter Revision Commission, which will appear on the back of the ballot on Tuesday November 6th, will give us a chance to reduce the corrupting influence of big money in politics, to breathe new life in our democracy through expanded participatory budgeting and civic engagement, and to make NYC’s community boards more representative.

I’m supporting all three proposals. In this op-ed in the New York Daily News with New York Immigration Coalition Executive Director Steven Choi, I give the positive reasons for each proposal.  

But some of you have asked me to respond to criticism you’ve heard about them. That’s why I’ve put together this 2018 Ballot Proposal guide, which explains each proposal in detail and addresses the arguments against the proposals, point-by-point, so that you can make an informed decision at the polls on Tuesday.

For what it’s worth, I think much of the opposition is driven by cynicism about the Mayor’s motives in appointing this Charter Revision Commission. For what it’s worth, only Proposal #1 was his idea. I was proud to be among the people who initiated Proposal #2. And Proposal #3 came from people -- mostly in the outer boroughs -- who testified at public hearings that they were frustrated with their own community boards and wanted to see some change. In any case, the question is not about the Mayor’s motives, but about whether these three proposals are good for the long-term health of our local democracy. I genuinely believe that they are.

If you’re with me on these proposals, please pledge to vote YES on all three. And if you want to take part in some civic engagement right away, help spread the word to your friends and neighbors.

2018 Ballot Proposal Guide

Question #1: Campaign Finance

Reduce Contribution Limits and Expand Matching Funds for Small-Dollar Contributions

NYC’s campaign finance system is good (far better than Albany or Washington), but we can and should still improve it. The Commission’s campaign finance proposal -- which almost everyone agrees with -- would strengthen our public financing system and reduce the corrupting influence of large campaign contributions. You can read a great opinion piece on this proposal from Council Member Ben Kallos and Morris Pearl.

This proposal would cut individual contribution limits (from $5,100 to $2,000 for citywide offices, $2,750 to $1,000 for City Council) and expand public matching funds (from 6:1 to 8:1, with an increase in the matchable amount for citywide races from $175 up to $250). This will empower small donors and reduce the corrupting influence of money in NYC politics.

By reducing the maximum contribution—both to candidates who participate in the public financing system and to those who do not—we would significantly diminish the potential for large campaign contributors and "bundlers" to unduly influence decision makers. In particular, one little-noticed change—increasing the maximum percentage of matching funds that an elected official can receive and use from 55% to 75%—will make it possible for candidates to rely far more heavily (even exclusively) on small contributions.

Addressing the arguments against this proposal:

  1. Limiting contributions from $5100 to $2000 won’t reduce the power of special interests.

    Good government organizations have shown that reducing contribution limits is the most direct way to reduce the existence and appearance of corruption. In NYC, current contribution limits are actually higher than those for federal offices and many local elections in other major cities.

    Reducing the contribution limits and increasing the match to numbers that are still high enough to communicate effectively with voters and run competitive campaigns, will diminish the power of large contributors and encourage candidates to engage a broader, more diverse set of contributors. This proposal will help NYC go further in getting big money out of politics.

  1. The proposals make public funds available earlier, to candidates who have not yet qualified to appear on the ballot, which presents an increased risk of waste and fraud.

    Under our current system, the vast majority of public funds are not disbursed until two weeks after petitions for the primary ballot are filed, which is just over a month before the primary election. This leads to a campaigns rushing to spend last-minute public funds on television ads, mailings and political consultants in the run-up to the election.

    Voting YES on this proposal would bump up that disbursement of funds to February and April of the election year, to allow for campaigns to spend public funds more thoughtfully to reach a broader, more diverse set of New Yorkers. More funds could be spent helping register people to vote, educate New Yorkers about the candidates’ positions and engage in dialogue that will help voters make an informed decision.

    In order to get access to those funds, the candidates first need to qualify with the NYC Campaign Finance Board, which is no easy task. The Campaign Finance Board uses a two-part threshold, which requires candidates to raise both a minimum amount of funds, and a minimum a number of contributions. To qualify as a Mayoral candidate, you would need to raise at least $250,000 from 1,000 unique contributors, which is no easy task. You also need to demonstrate that you are in a competitive election, with credible and reasonably well-funded opponents.

    This qualification process is very effective in sorting out candidates who aren’t serious about their races. And even then, each individual contribution is reviewed carefully by the Campaign Finance Board to screen for fraud, and donations from people doing business with the City, corporations, LLCs, partnerships and and other prohibited contributions.

  1. This program is too expensive.

    While this change will increase the cost of the Campaign Finance Program, it still represents a tiny fraction of the City’s budget which has already been set aside for the public matching fund program. Increased access to these public funds will mean a larger pool of stronger, diverse candidates -- not just those who have access to money, networks or wealthy contributors.

Question #2: Civic Engagement

Create a Civic Engagement Commission & Expand Participatory Budgeting City-wide

Strengthening democracy begins with protecting the vote, confronting political violence, and getting money out of politics -- but it cannot end there. If we want our democracy to genuinely be a space where people, across lines of difference, come together to solve problems and make their neighborhoods better, we must to more to deepen and expand New Yorkers sense of civic responsibility (beyond voting and jury duty, if that).

The Civic Engagement Commission would have 15 members (8 appointed by the mayor, and 7 by the City Council Speaker and the Borough Presidents) and a staff to carry out their work. The Commision would expand language access at polling sites, support community organizations in their civic engagement work, engage New Yorkers in civic service years, work with the DOE on civics education, support parks & library & plaza stewardship groups, offer assistance to community boards -- and, as its first charge, expand participatory budgeting citywide.

PBNYC gives power directly to everyday New Yorkers (including the undocumented, people on parole or probation, and other legal residents ineligible to vote). It allows us to be stewards of our public spaces and institutions, and taps our creativity and democratic imagination. Neighbors brainstorm projects to solve problems or create something new. They wrestle with bureaucracy, decide what goes on the ballot, and vote.

The results can be magical: Turning an unused library lawn into a storytelling garden. Creating a STEM lab at a young women’s leadership school. Senior fitness equipment in a local park. A greenhouse in public housing.

PBNYC voters are, on average, younger, lower-income, more likely to be immigrants. They are more likely to vote (if eligible) in municipal elections, and to get involved in our civic institutions.

It’s like an on-ramp to democracy. But nearly half of New Yorkers are excluded (because their Council Members don’t choose to participate). And most don’t know about it.

I know some people think it’s hokey, but having watched thousands of people participate in the eight years since we brought it to NYC, I think of it as a gateway drug to democracy.

Addressing the arguments against this proposal:

  1. It is an unnecessary additional bureaucracy.

    In our current $90 billion NYC government, we do not have a dedicated entity assigned to strengthen civic participation. At a time when trust in civic institution is at historic lows, it’s time the City took leadership on this issue and focused some professionals on reigniting civic life. We currently have no agency or commission that would make sense as a place to house citywide participatory budgeting.

    The Commission proposed will bring together programs for participatory budgeting, volunteership, civic service, civics education, public space stewardship programs in parks, plazas, and libraries, leadership development for youth and immigrants, language access and voter registration -- giving these good programs a central home with dedicated professionals and the oversight they need to succeed and grow.

  2. It is a power-grab by the Mayor, because it would “Permit the Mayor to assign relevant powers and duties of certain other City agencies to the Commission.”

    This is really a red herring. The proposal would only allow the Mayor to assign powers/duties from City agencies that he already controls more directly. For City agencies, the Mayor hires & fires the Commissioner directly. For the Civic Engagement Commission, he would appoint 8/15 members, but there would be 7 other members appointed by the Speaker and BPs. If anything, the Mayor will have less control here.

    The idea is to allow functions like NYC Service (which promotes civic service years & volunteering), and support for civic stewardship programs in parks (Parks Dep’t), plazas (DOT), and libraries to receive more support. Having one dedicated agency where professionals can design successful processes and provide technical support to City agencies can only help build trust in our institutions and foster meaningful public processes.

  3. It is the responsibility of the Board of Elections to provide language access to poll sites.

    Yes, it is their responsibility. But they have resolutely refused to do it, even when offered millions of dollars from the Mayor and the Council. Twenty-five percent or 1.8 million New Yorkers are not English proficient. We cannot afford to sit on our hands to wait for Albany to do the right thing.

    The proposal will provide language interpreters at poll sites in New York City (starting in the 2020 general election). The Commission will also develop a plan for improving language access in NYC’s programs and services in consultation with a newly formed and representative Language Accessibility Advisory Committee to ensure services are responsive to communities’ needs.

    The right to vote should be equally available to all citizens regardless of their country of origin and English language fluency. This new program will help us move the needle.

  4. It would be better if the Mayor only controlled a plurality (say, 6 of 15 seats) rather than a majority of the Commission.

    This is a reasonable argument. But I still believe we will be better off with this Board than we would be with either a Mayoral office or no office at all. The two advisory groups (on Participatory Budgeting and Language Access) will help hold this Commission accountable to its goals.

Question #3: Community Boards

Establish an eight-year term limit and provide more planning resources.

Community Boards are an important point of entry into a ladder of engagement for New Yorkers. While primarily advisory in nature, they help ensure that land use and other locally made decisions are informed by community concerns.

The thrust of the Commission’s proposal is to ensure that the community boards are genuinely representative of the communities they serve. The proposal would establish term limits (four 2-year terms) for Community Board members and standardize the appointment process to make the Boards more representative of their communities. It would also provide additional resources to Community Boards, particularly in city planning, so they can be more effective. Finally, it would implement annual reporting requirements on the demographic makeup of each community board alongside the demographic of each district to increase diversity and fair representation.

Most community board members, especially those in leadership positions, are re-appointed repeatedly, making it difficult if not impossible for others who are interested in contributing their time and ideas to serve a term. Term limits would open up more opportunities for a more diverse and inclusive set of individuals to have a seat at the table. Term limits would increase diversity, create opportunities to recruit and enlist people who are interested in engaging more deeply in their communities, and allow community boards to act as training grounds for nurturing new civic leaders.  

Right now, many of our community boards simply don’t reflect the neighborhoods they represent. In Queens, for example, 26% of residents are white, but they hold 55% of the community board seats. Meanwhile, 29% of residents are Latino … but they hold only 9% of CB seats.

Addressing the arguments against this proposal:

  1. Community Boards will be robbed of their institutional knowledge, making them less effective at protecting our communities from real estate interests.

I am sympathetic to this concern. It takes time to learn the functions of a community board and complex land use decisions. But this risk has been greatly exaggerated. Institutional knowledge is an important consideration for all organizations. But so is new blood and energy.

Effective leadership is not clinging to one’s own perch because of specialized knowledge; instead, it requires the recruitment, training, and development of emerging leaders. Eight years is plenty of time to deploy existing experience, gain new expertise, and pass it on to new leadership. There is no reason to think that newly appointed community board members will be a less effective advocates for their neighborhood (whether they are fighting developers, City Hall, or any other interests).

Yes, something is lost when long-time members rotate off (they can come back on two years later). But something more is gained when organizations work to recruit, train, and develop new leadership. I was not always a supporter of term limits, but my time in the City Council has persuaded me that they are good for the health of our democracy.

  1. Term limits will result in a mass exodus of Community Board members.

The way the term limits will roll out will be on a staggered basis, to avoid any risk of mass exodus. The proposal will limit appointments to 4 consecutive 2-year terms, starting with terms that start after 2019. However, members appointed or reappointed starting on April 2020 can be reappointed for up to five consecutive two-year terms, which will prevent a heavy turnover of community board membership in 2027 and 2028. In addition, board members who are termed-out would not be barred from re-appointment forever. They would simply need to sit out for one full term (2 years), and then they would become eligible for reappointment.

  1. Borough Presidents and City Council Members can already insure turnover, by choosing not to re-appoint long-standing members.

    This is technically true -- but it is just not realistic. If Community Board members don’t attend meetings, they are (sometimes) not re-appointed. But when a CB member attends regularly and contributes, is a neighborhood civic leader, and re-applies, it is just very unlikely that BPs and Council Members will reject them. It’s partly politics, but it’s even more human nature. Who wants to reject someone -- someone who remains eligible, in the absence of term limits -- when you don’t have to? So if you genuinely want to see turnover and more diversity, term limits are the way to go.

  2. It would “require” community boards to accept assistance from the Mayor and diminish the role of Borough Presidents in supporting CBs.

This is simply false. The assistance offered to Community Boards would be wholly voluntary. By no means would this additional support replace the support already provided by Borough Presidents.

Not all Borough Presidents provide Community Boards with the support they need. And not all communities can recruit and appoint members with professional expertise in planning, land use law and architecture. The vast majority of community boards—particularly those with concentrations of immigrants and communities of color—don’t enjoy the luxury of having that kind of professional expertise on-hand.

In order to operate more effectively and expand community outreach, community boards need more staff and resources—particularly urban planning services, training and technical support. With a board of multiple appointers (including Borough Presidents), the Civic Engagement Commission will be the best positioned government entity in the City to provide Community Boards with the support they need across the board. The Commission would identify qualified firms, professional staff or qualified consultants—and community boards can provide feedback to the Commission itself and Commission Board members regarding the efficacy of these resources.

  1. This proposal is some kind of Trojan horse in support of over-development.

    There’s no reason to believe that younger, newer members of the board would be more excited about development -- or less able to do research, talk to experts, put together cogent arguments, craft and vote on positions to advance the best interests of their community.

    No community board will be forced to accept planners provided through the Civic Engagement Commission -- and in any case, those planners would have a professional duty to serve their clients.

    And for what it’s worth, here is REBNY’s (the Real Estate Board of New York, the trade association for the real estate industry) opinion on this issue:

    “First, we reject term limits for community board members. The land use process can be complicated, and proper planning takes time. Removing institutional knowledge is not the answer to inertia or to entrenchment.” (Don’t believe me? Their full testimony is here).

    I won’t argue that if you vote NO on #3, you are doing REBNY’s bidding. But you would be taking the same position that they are.

Finally, I have heard criticisms of the 2018 Charter Revision Commission’s process, or that these matters should have gone through the City Council’s legislative process. I am a big fan of the Council’s legislative process. However, I do think it is worth noting that the Commission held multiple evening hearings in every borough, heard/received testimony from hundreds of New Yorkers, and did fairly extensive public deliberation. They received more public comment, in settings and at time more accessible to the public, than Council legislation generally receives. The 2018 Commission kept their focus narrow in order to deliver thoughtful proposals within the time they had.

Larger City Charter issues (land use, budget, fair-share, civilian oversight of the NYPD, ranked-choice voting, etc) will be considered by the 2019 Charter Revision Commission, established by Council legislation. I’m excited by the opportunity presented by a Commission, which has more time to work, to really dig in on complex issues.  I hope you will take part in that Commission: you can give your preliminary ideas and sign up for alerts on their website here.

Annie Levers