At the City Council meeting on Tuesday, January 3, Robert Turner, chair of the Charter Review Commission, updated the Council on his commission’s work. Originally Turner had planned to bring a budget to the Council for this meeting but then postponed this.
Turner noted that his commission has spent twelve of the sixteen thousand dollars approved for 2016. $6,000.00 was spent to pay city Assistant Attorney Tony Izzo for legal help and $6,000.00 for a clerk to record the proceedings. Turner told the Council he planned to meet individually with members of the Council in the following days to discuss their 2017 plans and needs.
Mr. Turner told the Council that his commission planned to present to voters a new form of government to replace the Commission form that currently governs the city. While his commission has not yet decided on what alternative form they will present to voters, they want to schedule a vote for a special election to be held in April of 2017. His commission feels this is preferable to putting the item on the ballot for the regularly scheduled November election. He asserted that to have the referendum on charter change at the same time as a general election for City Council in November would make the process “political.” He asserted that the focus on personalities in a regular election would undermine the ability of the public to thoughtfully address the charter change issue.
He read from the state municipal law that basically requires the city to fund the Charter Commission’s work.
Under some pretty withering criticism, Mr. Turner remained composed. When the discussion was closing he promised to have a budget for 2017 by next Tuesday (January 10th). Under subsequent questioning he indicated that while he had sent out a proposed budget, no formal action had been taken by his committee yet.
The reaction from the Council was spirited.
Accounts Commissioner John Franck was extremely skeptical about the ability of the city to have a special election in April. Since the city, not the county (which is usually in charge of running elections) would be responsible for conducting a special election; the Accounts Department would play the major role in carrying this out.
Franck told Turner that he had no position on what the outcome of the referendum should be. His primary concern was over what he viewed as a problematic process. He noted that holding a vote on charter change in April would seriously “suppress” the vote and suggested that some in favor of charter change might prefer a smaller turn out.
As to Mr. Turner’s concern about “politics” confusing the outcome of a November vote, he reminded Turner that the 2006 vote on charter change lost in every district and the 2012 vote for yet a different charter change lost in all but two. Franck offered that such an overwhelming rejection seemed to undermine Turner’s arguments about the public being diverted by politics. The defeats weren’t even close, he told Turner.
Franck questioned the ability of the Charter Commission to meet the strict election regulations and timeframes required for an April vote in light of the fact that the Commission had yet to determine the most basic issue: what form a new government might take. He looked at the timeframes and speculated that in order to be on the ballot in April the charter language would have to be resolved by law at least sixty days prior to a city vote. This would mean that the Charter Commission would have to complete its work by February at the very latest. Franck then went on to discuss the enormous difficulty the city had in dealing with the ballot preparation even after the previous commissions had adopted their plans. He said the process went on for many weeks. He strongly argued that even sixty days was insufficient time to complete the many steps required. He also told the Council that the full cost of preparing the ballot and having a special election could easily cost the city $40,000.00. In an exchange with Tony Izzo they reminisced about the many hours devoted to editing and cleaning up the last two charter proposals as support for how difficult the process would be.
Franck engaged city attorney Tony Izzo in a discussion regarding the scope of the city’s financial obligation to the commission. In particular he asked Izzo whether the commission could require the city to appropriate moneys for a special election as well as moneys for its general deliberations. He said the responsibility of the city to fund the general support for the deliberations of the commission was clear but that requiring the city to fund a special April election was not. Mr. Izzo was unsure of this and said he would research it.
Public Works Commissioner Skip Scirocco was even harsher. He asserted that there was “no justification” to change the city’s commission form of government in light of the fact that “there is no more successful city” in New York. He characterized the Commission’s plan for a special election as “ludicrous.” He said they would do better to strengthen the existing charter.
Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan, asserted that having a special election in April would be expensive and noted that the city had not budgeted for this.
Mayor Yepsen explained that she was intentionally keeping a distance from the commission to allow them to independently work on the charter. Of the fifteen members of the commission, Mayor Yepsen appointed eleven.
Commissioner Mathiesen who has publically expressed support for ending the commission form of government spoke briefly thanking the commission for its work.
To Mr. Turner’s credit, he remained positive and conciliatory throughout the entire discussion and emphasized repeatedly his commission’s desire to work with the City Council.