Governance and politics of New York City operate in a particular way because they are framed by law. One of the most important laws is the Charter of the City of New York— its constitution.
Unlike the Constitution of the United States, which does not change very often, the City Charter is revised more frequently. In fact, the last time it was changed was last year when the City Council amended the Charter in order to allow the mayor and council members to run for a third term in office, in spite of Charter amendments previously approved by voters that elected officials could only remain in office for two terms. This action by the City Council was completely legal because the City Charter stipulates that it can be amended by the voters in a referendum or by a local law approved by the City Council.
When the City Charter is amended by referendum of voters, it usually happens based on the recommendations of a Charter Revision Commission. In fact, most changes to the Charter have been the result of voter-ratified recommendations by such commissions. These commissions can be created by a City Council local law, a voter’s petition, but most often by mayoral appointment.
As it happens, those who establish a charter revision commission also set the tenor of the revisions when not the agenda.
Most recently, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he was establishing another Charter Revision Commission, charged with “proposing any possible amendments that would improve it”. The 15-member ethnically diverse commission is a virtual who’s who of current and former government officials, and uniformly upper middle class. The commission also has the support of Citizens’ Union, the preeminent good-government organization in the City.
These members would have intimate knowledge of how city government works and does not. But will the amendments they propose benefit the city as a whole or just the middle class?
Carlos Vargas-Ramos, Ph.D. is a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, City University of New York.