Charter Review Commission: A Disturbing Discussion With Some Down Right Unpleasant Behavior

I am including in this blog segments of the  video of the September 18 Charter Review Commission meeting.    

I find the tone of the interchanges here reminiscent of the very kind of belligerence and self righteousness that this group characterizes as “politics” under the current commission form of government.  I grant that my observations are subjective and I invite the readers of this blog to take the time to view these relatively brief videos and make their own determinations.

Some background is in order to understand what is going on in the video: 

-First of all  the New York State law that establishes Charter Review Commissions makes them independent bodies and requires that municipalities fund them so they can carry out their duties.  The local government, in our case our city council, has no authority over what they do.  There is, however, a caveat.  Any literature that is produced by a Charter Commission with public funds must be educational and not advocacy. 

-The 2006 Charter Commission sent out a mailing that they expected the City Council to pay for. The then Commissioners of Finance (Matt McCabe)and Accounts (John Franck)deemed the mailer advocacy and refused to pay. 

-The current Charter Commission has two attorneys who are paid to provide services to it.  One of the attorneys is the city’s Assistant Attorney, Tony Izzo, who attends all the meetings.  The other attorney, Robert Batson, is an Albany Law School professor specializing in government law who has acted as a resource for the Commission 

-The meeting that is the subject of this video occurred the day before the City Council meeting at which Commissioner Franck took strong exception to the financial analysis that was adopted by the Commission that was supposed to explain the economic impact of the proposed charter.  Early in the meeting that is the subject of the video, Tony Izzo advised the Charter Commission that at the City Council agenda meeting that morning at least one member of the Council had expressed interest in having the Council review the Charter Review Commission’s materials before they are mailed.  At the subsequent council meeting which occurred after the meeting in the video, the council voted unanimously to request that the Charter Commission send them the materials to be mailed to the voters prior to the mailing.  The Council resolution also called for the two bodies to work together on the issue.

The video segment picks up with the Commission discussion of how they will respond to this Council’s impending request.

 I am disturbed by the tone and manner of the discussion as regards their attitudes towards Tony Izzo and the City Council.  This is not the first time a Commission member has accused Mr. Izzo of being an agent of a hostile city council. In this instance this leads them to decide not to hear Mr. Izzo’s opinion on the appropriateness of the materials they want to send out. Whether you agree with Mr. Izzo’s opinions or not, he has extensive experience in city hall and with charter commissions and it is always worthwhile hearing what he has to say.   Similarly, the other members of the Charter Commission dismiss Matt Jones’ suggestion that they have their attorney in Albany review what they plan to mail out to the public.  For me their hostile attitude towards the City Council and their disinterest in Tony’s legal considerations of what they are mailing are regrettably mirrored by the ugly nature of the interactions between the members of the commission.

 I find it particularly telling that the request to have the materials reviewed by the attorney in Albany came from Matt Jones and that it was so resoundingly dismissed.  Mr. Jones is himself an attorney with considerable experience in government.  He has both the humility and the experience to know that these kind of things benefit from the assessment of an attorney who specializes in a particular area of law.  I have experienced decades of listening to people who are not attorneys make confident legal assessments and then be shocked when judges find otherwise.  I offer the recent overturning of the convictions of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos as examples of how skilled attorneys can find strategies for overturning decisions that to most of us seem cut and dry.  With respect to the people who have worked so hard on drafting their charter, it is easy for group think to develop in a project like this and for people to become insular in their thinking.

 Bear in mind that the entire City Council voted to work with the Charter Commission to review the Commission’s materials that are to be taxpayer funded before they are mailed out.  Remember that both Mayor Yepsen and Commissioner Mathiesen support charter change but voted for this.   It would be prudent to consider any issues of concern offered by the Council on the mailing whether or not the commission accepted any of these concerns. 

 Finally, I find it more than strange, and I think anyone who views this video will find it strange, that Mr. Turner is now quoted in the papers on his confidence that he can work with the Council on the mailing.  I did not include in the video the conclusion of the meeting.  In the end they passed a watered down resolution saying they will send a communication to the City Council advising them to go to the city website if they want to view the documents for the proposed mailing.  To me,  the hostility to interacting with the Council on the mailing is palpable and makes Mr. Turner’s comments appear more as political spin for the public than a serious offer to work with the Council.



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