Thursday, April 08, 2010

Errors of Commission?

City Room blogs on the staff composition for the mayor's Charter Commission-and teases that it could actually have some independence from the mayor: "If you assumed that the new commission to revise the city charter would be a mere rubber stamp for the wishes of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, think again — at least for now. On Tuesday night, at the commission’s first meeting open to public testimony, the commission’s chairman, Matthew Goldstein, revealed that Lorna B. Goodman, who was most recently Nassau County attorney, would be the executive director."

And the rest of the staff are CUNY insiders: "Mr. Goldstein, the chancellor of the City University of New York, also announced several other important staff appointments, including three longtime CUNY insiders — Frederick P. Schaffer as general counsel, Joseph Viteritti as research director and Jay Hershenson as a spokesman."

So far, so good-but the staffing may in fact find itself at loggerheads with the commission members: "Of course, it is the 15 members of the commission itself — all appointed by Mr. Bloomberg, and many with strong ties to City Hall and city government — who will ultimately decide the agenda, not the staff. So many good-government watchdogs are still dubious that the commission will come up with ideas that might truly upset Mr. Bloomberg."

And we shouldn't forget that Mayor Bloomberg-with his backdoor money spigot-is the master of appearances, reminding us of Machiavelli's maxim: "It is better to appear good, than to be good." But this possible Kabuki theater operation underscores the weaknesses of the charter revision process-something we have commented on already.

What the city charter review needs is greater access from, and accountability to, the public-as many of the speakers at the commission's first hearing stated: "Most of the other speakers advocated changes that they said would give the people a greater voice in government — land use decisions, in particular. Calling for a charter commission that “will engage the people of this city much more deeply than ever before,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio ticked off a list of thing on his agenda: a more independent Civilian Complaint Review Board for the police department, “greater checks and balances on city government, more parental involvement in education and an expanded role for the City Council."

And there was the same skepticism expressed about the commission's independece, something that we have also voiced: "Many speakers wondered whether a commission selected by a mayor who prides himself on his top down management style would actually put “everything on the table” as Bloomberg has promised and give the public a genuine chance to shape its recommendations. Several saw the short notice for last night’s meeting — announced only last week — as a harbinger of possible trouble down the road."

But Chairman Goldstein promised greater outreach: "The commission, Goldstein said, would launch “an extensive effort to reach deep into the bedrock of viewpoints in this city.”

But one person who testified underscored what the mood of the gathering was: “Allow the city to be governed by its people,” urged Erlene Fisher , a member of Community Voices Heard. And such a change-along with bolstering the powers of the legislature-would be the first step towards ameliorating the skewed concentration of power that the charter provides to the executive. Greater checks and balances-particularly when the mayor is NY's richest citizen-is essential to prevent the dangerous concentration of political power.