Democracy Is The Real Issue In Council Vote
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
The day this paper is published, Thursday, October, 23, 2008, if Council Speaker Christine Quinn can count 26 votes she will call the question and pass a law which will overrule a law passed by the people – twice.
The issue, which you all should know by now, is whether the City Council on its own, should extend term limits as instituted by a law passed by a referendum of the people in 1993 and then ratified by the people again in 1996 when Councilmembers wanted to extend term limits.
Again eight years ago, there was a move in the Council to extend term limits from two to three terms; but it was finally withdrawn.
The Law as passed by the people limits the Mayor, the Public Advocate, the Comptroller, the Borough Presidents and each Councilmember to two consecutive four-year terms. That is basically how every single person who occupies any of the positions, got into office – their predecessor was term limited out.
Rudy Giuliani, who was term limited out of office in 2001, tried to extend his term in the wake of the 9-11 attack. But in spite of each attempt, the people’s law has been respected.
Mayor Bloomberg, citing the financial crisis has asked for the Council to give him the right to run for another term. And as part of the bargain, they have thrown in four year extensions for everyone else – including the Councilmembers voting on the extension. They have names for things like that.
So Councilmembers who got their seat because of the people’s term limit law will vote themselves an extension of four years without asking the people’s permission.
While it sounds something like a third world country junta power grab, it is taking place here in New York City.
The Councilmembers have discussed overturning or extending the people’s term limit law many times over the past seven years. We have written about their quiet consideration of a coup many times over the past seven years. But each time, common decency and morality caused them to respect the law passed by the people and back down.
Now, with one year to go, they see their last shot at retaining power.
They could have brought the issue back to the people by referendum. The Mayor could have done so by a Charter Revision Commission – but he called the concept of overturning term limits “disgusting.” That was until his final year in office approached. The issue can still be put before the people. But the Mayor and a self-serving bunch of Councilmembers so intent on keeping their power have forgotten whose government it is.
They are scheduled to vote themselves an extension.
All they need are 26 Council votes – out of 51. And everyone has been counting and it is very close.
This vote will be the most important vote ever cast by each member of the City Council. It will be their ballot on democracy. They will be telling their constituents that either they back the people and believe that a law passed by the people may be changed only by the people or they will raise their hands in favor of disregarding the term limit law in order to allow themselves four extra years in office.
There are few votes that should follow an elected official as a permanent stain throughout their career. But then, there are few votes where the people have had an opportunity to go to the voting booth and be heard – in this case heard twice.
Now the threat of future retribution by the people may not worry all of the Councilmembers. Some are looking for that extra two years to earn a City pension and others know their elected careers are at an end if they don’t overrule the people’s law. Others believe we all have very short memories.
There are however, some moral, ethical and upstanding Councilmembers who have stepped forward and led the fight and demanded that any change in the people’s law be put back to the people by referendum.
The pressure has been incredible. On one side is the billionaire Mayor who controls lines in the City budget that can be doled out to members who vote for the extension. His ally, who is getting herself four more years and a devoted Mayor, controls committee chairmanships, appointments, allocations, lulus and member items – you remember her and member items for phantom organizations. The Mayor and Speaker Quinn have been meeting with undecided Councilmembers to “twist their arms.”
On the other side is a bunch of caring citizens, good government groups and yes, the people.
Watch carefully, record names. Let us not forget this vote.
Will democracy prevail in the City Council or will self interest?
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We last wrote week about term limits, and then paused for the required public hearings which were held Thursday and Friday. Although the hearings were poorly managed and many members of the public were excluded from testifying, while others were rushed through two-minute bites, what did come through were the large numbers of ordinary people (not just candidates and ‘community organizers’ who came on their own time and dime to speak against the Bloomberg-Quinn plan for mutual term extension.
The witnesses supporting the Council’s attempt to over-ride the City Charter were generally but not universally those encouraged to attend by the Mayor, the Speaker and their aides.
Many were unfamiliar with the precise issue, but issued statements of support for the Mayor. The opposing witnesses were primarily concerned with the principle of a legislative body reversing the twice expressed judgment of the people -- particularly on an issue involving substantial personal, political and financial benefits for the legislators themselves, most of whom had not earned anything near their Council salaries ($122,500, including lulus) in their previous private or ‘non-profit’ activity.
Some witnesses were hostile to the Mayor and a few were rude. A number, including this writer, spoke favorably about the Bloomberg administration.
Among the numerous deficiencies of the “public” hearing was the fact that the Council chamber was far too small to hold the people who wanted to speak or to listen. Even worse, the second day hearing was held in a much smaller room, the committee chamber, so that hardly anyone was able to gain admittance. (A hearing on Willets’ Point occupied the Council chamber). What ensued over two days was scarcely a “public hearing,” in the sense of a dialogue or an exchange of views.
Registration was arbitrarily cut off at a particular hour for each hearing. The time limit for the public was set at two minutes, which is totally inadequate for a persuasive oral presentation on a serious issue.
The presiding officer was Councilman Simcha Felder, who could most charitably be described as irascible. He forbade applause, and continually threatened spectators with eviction, although, in this area at least, his bark was far worse than his bite.
We believe that this is one of the most important issues to come before the City Council because it deals with city governance, and what we and many others see as an attempt to use legal technicalities to over-ride the will of over a million people, twice expressed.
Some people discredit the term limits referenda because Ronald Lauder spent millions of dollars to pursue that goal. But Mayor Bloomberg spent millions in support of a referendum question for non-partisan local government (which we strongly supported), and the proposal lost, 70 to 30. It is true that Lauder’s fortune brought the issue to the people, but the majority voted for it because they wanted to. Certainly Lauder was in no position to promise jobs, budget appropriations or any other benefits to those who supported his views.
It may also be argued that Section 38 of the City Charter prevents the Council from extending eligibility for re-election without a public referendum.
We cite subsection 4. A referendum is required if a law “abolishes an elective office, or changes the method of nominating, electing or removing an elective officer, or changes the term of an elective office.” It seems to us that this language applies with regard to a law changing the eligibility of a candidate for public office, especially if a previous referendum had been held on precisely that point.
The entire thrust of Section 38 is to prevent the Council from tampering with the system of elections for its own benefit. Although no one can predict the action of the Court of Appeals if this case arrives there, it is clear that the intention of the section was to prevent monkeying with an election to suit the personal ambitions of candidates, including those who would otherwise be ineligible to seek office.
The City Charter does go out of its way to protect the sanctity of the electoral process and the final authority of the public to make decisions on governance. For a lame-duck City Council to tamper with that process, after they failed despite ample opportunity to place the matter on referendum, is likely to be illegal if the Court considers the intent of Section 38, but it is certainly unconscionable.
Whether one likes the Mayor or not, whether one likes term limits or not, people of reasonable judgment should reject this last minute effort to thwart the democratic process. Those who participate in this scheme will, sooner or later, pay a price at the polls, because they are acting in their own interest, not on behalf of the men and women who elected them.
The councilmembers first elected in 2001 are the trust fund kids of politics. They only got their seats when their predecessors had to give up theirs. For these members to attempt to subvert the very Charter provision that made their own election possible is the height of both greed and gall.
Not4Publication.com by Dom Nunziato