Charter Schooling

A panel discussion tonight (Monday, October 29) will seek to provide information for Lower Manhattan voters about the three ballot proposals they will be asked to decide upon in next week’s election. Although these measures have profound implications for local politics and government, very few voters are familiar with the proposals, which were announced over the summer, and will appear on the reverse side of ballots on election day.

Admission to the event, which will feature community leaders and elected officials (along with the opportunity for local residents to ask questions), is free, and light refreshments will be served.

The program is being organized and sponsored by Democracy for Battery Park City, New Downtown Democrats, and Downtown Independent Democrats, and will be held at the Metropolitan College of New York (60 West Street, near the corner of Rector Street), starting at 6:30 pm.

The three ballot measures envision expanding New York’s system of publicly financed political campaigns, creating a new agency to foster “civic engagement,” and limiting terms for members of Community Boards, the local panels of volunteers who serve as the official voice of their neighborhoods.

City Council member Ben Kallos: “Campaigns run on contributions, that’s part of our democracy. But since 2010, there have been $128 million in contributions to City elected officials. And more than half of that came from ‘big money’ donors, meaning contributors who gave more than $2,000.”

The first measure is supported by City Council member Ben Kallos, who is planning to attend tonight’s meeting, and says that, “campaigns run on contributions; that’s part of our democracy. But since 2010, there have been $128 million in contributions to City elected officials. And more than half of that came from ‘big money’ donors, meaning contributors who gave more than $2,000. And around 90 percent came from people who gave more than $175.”

He outlines how pernicious this can be with a hypothetical. “If you want to run for Mayor, that costs around $7 million. If you raise $600,000, the City matches that with $4 million  in public funds. But you still need another $2.4 million. So you have ask 512 people for $5,100 each,” which is the maximum allowable campaign contribution under City law. “Or you can ask 14,919 people for $175 each,” which is the maximum contribution eligible for City matching funds. “The problem is,” he says, “very few people have 14,000 friends.”

Regarding the smaller number of donors able to contribute more than $5,000 each, Mr. Kallos observes, “I once gave somebody something worth around that much, but I expected her to spend the rest of her life with me. So money comes with strings attached.”

“I’m an elected official,” he says. “Every one who has ever given me money expects something back from me. Everyone who has ever voted for me expects something back from me. I get calls from people who have contributed $10, who say, ‘I gave you $10 and I own you, so fix that pot hole in front of my house.’ And the more people give, the more likely it is that what they expect goes from fixing a pot hole to, ‘can you get my business a City contract?'”

As an extreme example, he says, “it becomes, ‘I’d like to buy that nursing home, so I’ll pay the City $36 million and I’ll sell it for $100 million, and that was worth my $5,100.” This was a reference the Rivington House scandal, in which a Lower East Side nursing home for AIDS patients was bought by a developer, closed, and then “flipped” as the site for new luxury housing.

Ballot Proposal 1 would cut off half of the big money,” Mr. Kallos says, “lowering the maximum contribution from $5,100 to $2,000. That’s still way too much, and I would like to lower it more. But it’s a step in the right direction.” As part of the same proposal, the City aims to expand its program of matching campaign funds from six dollars, to eight for every one contributed. “In that situation,” he predicts, “a future candidate for Mayor would need only about 4,500 smaller contributors, instead of more than 14,000.” A similar effect would narrow the amount of money candidates for City Council would need to raise.

Mr. Kallos predicts that implementing this proposal, which he supports, would cost tax payers around $30 million in public campaign funds in a mayoral election year, “but that’s a lot less expensive than what the Rivington debacle cost the City.”

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer: “I don’t believe in term limits for Community Boards. You end up losing institutional memory on issues like real estate and schools. And the proposed Commission on Civic Engagement would give all the votes to Mayor.”

Ballot Proposal 2 would create a “civic engagement commission,” designed to foster greater participation in the political process by residents of New York City, especially at the neighborhood level. But the leadership and staff of this panel would be appointed by the mayor, which leads several local leaders to view it with skepticism.

State Assembly member Deborah Glick, who also plans to attend Monday’s meeting, says, “we should not validate executive authority in this fashion. I don’t think the way that the Charter Revision Commission proposals were pushed through should be validated in any way. This was done over the summer when lots of people were not particularly engaged. I would vote no on this, and the other two proposals. This is another power grab by an executive that should be completely and totally rejected.”

These sentiments were echoed at an October 21 meeting of Downtown Independent Democrats, by Jeannie Wilke, who said, “more than half of the members of this commission would be appointed by Mayor. It will be a whole new layer of government, with no clear sense of what they’re supposed to do.”

Terri Cude added, “this would be the fox guarding the henhouse. The Borough President’s office is a much more independent body.” (Ms. Cude, who serves as chair of Community Board 2, added that she was speaking only in her capacity as a private citizen.)

State Assembly member Deborah Glick: “I don’t think the way that the Charter Revision Commission proposals were pushed through should be validated in any way. This was done over the summer when lots of people were not particularly engaged. This is another power grab by an executive that should be completely and totally rejected.”

Ballot Proposal 3, which would impose term limits on membership of Community Boards, was addressed by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer at the October 17 annual meeting of the Gateway Plaza Tenants Association.

“I’m not supposed to say this,” she began, “but I’m going to say it anyway. I don’t believe in term limits for Community Boards. You end up losing institutional memory on issues like real estate and schools. And the proposed Commission on Civic Engagement would give all the votes to Mayor.”

Ms. Glick concurred with Ms. Brewer’s concerns about Community Board term limits, saying, “Lower Manhattan has depended upon people who serve on community boards, who have historical knowledge, who ask the right questions, and who push back against the bad ideas.”

In addition to Mr. Kallos and Ms. Glick, speakers scheduled to participate in Monday’s meeting include Bob Townley, founder and executive director of Manhattan Youth (who also serves on Community Board 1), and Tricia Joyce, who serves of chair of the Youth and Education Committee of Community Board 1.

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