Charter Revision & The Meaning Of Democracy
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
The ability of the people to change the Constitution (Charter, in the case
of New York City) is the embodiment of the concept of Athenian Democracy.
Some of you may remember what we studied way back in Contemporary
Civilizations 1 at Queens College — you know, CC1.
“Legislative power rested with the whole body of citizens convening in
The basic tenet of Athenian Democracy was so described in the textbook (A
History Of Civilization, Brinton by Christopher and Wolff) of that course,
which I took 40 years ago.
Way back some five hundred years or so before Christ, there existed the
Athens City State, the first and perhaps truest democratic form of
Times change, but should the system?
Four Previous Mayors: Abe Beame, Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani have seen many changes to New York City government.
In order to enact laws, the assembly consisting of all male citizens in Athens voted on decisions directly. Decisions were not determined by elected officials — the ancients considered that an oligarchy, not a democracy.
Calendar forward 2,500 years and through some remarkable occurrence, count women as equal, and empower all (male and female) citizens to change the structure and rules of government and you have the City of New York.
Our Charter, the document which empowers City government can only be changed by a majority vote of the people. Unlike Athens, there is no Assembly — it would be too large and unwieldy, the vote is cast by machine, on Election Day. Things will likely remain that way until participation is increased when online voting takes hold and reinvents the Assembly in cyberspace.
Nevertheless, the people are truly in control of the major rules of government.
Not that long ago, the people spoke and term limited the City elected officials. This remarkable and noble effort, brought an exciting change to a stagnant system. And although those in power at the time, shouted doom-and-gloom, the-sky-will-fall scenarios, the new City functioned well in one of the toughest economic periods in modern times. Our City came through the terror attacks of September 11 and a nationwide financial downturn led by a new Mayor, Comptroller and a City Council made up largely of neophytes.
The sky did not fall.
The air was purer. The gray areas that tarnish government diminished and the energy and idea level at an all time high.
The establishment fought the change — they hated it.
The people embraced the change — they enacted it.
And things were good.
Change to the system always upsets those in power. Change to the system is often good. Change breeds new ideas; change attracts new people; change disrupts dishonorable paths of government.
Change for change’s sake is probably more attractive than keeping the status quo.
Government like all other institutions becomes stale; its people, process and creativity becomes stagnant. New life, new ideas and new people energize stagnant institutions.
No, that is not a blanket endorsement of all change. It is a clear message that change, when offered, should be considered seriously. And when the political establishment — those in power — is the force leading the fight against the change, don’t listen to them.
Evaluate the system, study the impact of the change on the process and, if in doubt, lean towards making the change.
Our democracy empowered the people – not the political parties and elected officials – to change our charter. In fact, Athenian Democracy rejected elected officials as more competent to make important judgements than the people.
I reject that, too.
On Nov 4, you will go to the polls and cast your vote on ballot proposals.
It is an obligation of being part of this wonderful system we call a democracy.
And you must participate.
Ballot proposals can get confusing. Our simple system requiring the citizens to vote yea or nay is not so simple. This year five ballot questions are presented — brief summaries are on this page. And although the language of the five is understandable, the questions are complex.
Often, many voters see the ballot questions for the first time in the voting booth. Others might be familiar with one or two. The pressure of others waiting to vote often leads us to skip voting on ballot proposals which require reading time and consideration.
Voters should make it their business to find complete copies of the ballot proposals before the election and be prepared to cast their vote in an educated manner. One site offering proposal language is www.gothamgazette.com/searchlight/2003.ballotquestions.shtml.
We all evaluate candidates in advance of voting. We must consider ballot proposals in the same manner.
Back in 1996 when a deceitful City Council wanted to fool the voters into modifying the term limits law they imposed three years earlier, they worded the proposal where a “no” vote meant “yes.” The people were not fooled and held fast to term limits.
But sadly, in our democracy, there seems to be the assumption that ballot questions will pass unless someone expends time and money to oppose them.
We believe that such is the case with four of the five ballot questions you will have to consider on Election Day.
Only question three will likely be vigorously opposed by anyone. It is being opposed by most Democratic insiders and elected officials. That alone is reason for you to consider it. Like term limits, those in power are quick to protect their turf and reject change.
Remember, change often is good even if just for change’s sake. Unless you believe the process of electing City Officials is a process without fault, change should be considered.
Read the proposed language to the left. Filter out the political rhetoric that you will hear between now and Election Day and decide.
Should we stay with our age-old system of electing City Officials or should we try an alternative used in most of the nation’s big cities?
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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