NYC Voters Could Change Balance of Power

Charter review commission to look at term limits among other issues

New York City voters could have the chance this fall to change the balance of powers in city government, overhaul development procedures and possibly make city elections nonpartisan as a panel examines an update to the city constitution.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed the charter review commission earlier this year, following up on a promise he made when he persuaded the City Council to change the term limits law in 2008 so he could seek a third term.

At the time, Bloomberg said there wasn't enough time for a charter commission to do its work and put the term limits issue before voters, but he promised he would appoint a panel to revisit that issue, among others, if he were re-elected.

The term limits law is one of five issues the group included Monday on a list of things it is planning to study; the fifth is government integrity and transparency. The list was formulated after a round of public hearings this spring during which about 180 people testified.

"These are the issues that the public told us they want to look at," said Lorna Goodman, executive director of the commission.

The commission will hold forums on the five issues through May and June and produce a report in July, said the panel's chairman, Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York.

More hearings will then be held and voters will know by late August or early September what, if anything, will be on the ballot. The panel could also decide it needs more time and put off any referendum questions until the next election cycle.

New York City's more than 350-page charter is the product of state laws, City Council laws, petitions and adopted proposals of 12 earlier charter review commissions.

The city was governed by colonial charters and then state charter before the five boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx were consolidated in 1898. The consolidated city got its first charter then.

The last charter review commission was in 2005. The panel worked for a year and put two referendum questions on the ballot: one that created an ethics code for administrative judges and one that established certain fiscal duties for the city that generally had been imposed only by state law.

This year, the timeline is much faster. The commission's first meeting was March 18.

The commission includes people from a cross section of government and outside groups. All members were appointed by Bloomberg, which critics say makes it impossible for charter review panels to be independent.

"Appointees vote the way their appointor dictates," said Bill McCarthy, a Staten Island resident who testified at a hearing last month. "If that's going to be the case with you ... you can probably go home tonight and save yourself a lot of trouble."

The commission repeatedly has asserted its independence, but several of the issues selected Monday are pet causes of the mayor.

The billionaire Republican-turned-independent spent $7.5 million of his own money on a failed 2003 ballot measure that would have imposed nonpartisan elections in city races. He has said repeatedly since then he still wants nonpartisan contests in New York.

He also has mused about the effectiveness of various elected city offices, including that of the public advocate — who would succeed the mayor if he cannot serve.

The balance of power forums are likely to touch on that, as well as other examinations of city government structure, including borough presidents and community boards.

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