Restructuring the New York City Government: The Reemergence of Municipal Reform

By Frank J. Mauro; Gerald Benjamin | Go to book overview

The Practical Lessons of Charter Reform

ERIC LANE

In November 1986, a federal district court judge declared the scheme of voting on New York City's Board of Estimate to be in violation of the constitutional doctrine of one person, one vote. 1 Mayor Edward I. Koch immediately appointed a charter revision commission, which defined its task broadly. It decided not only to examine alternative voting plans for the Board of Estimate but also to study whether other institutions could better perform the board's myriad powers, which include all final land-use and franchising decisions, the approval of certain types of contracts, and joint responsibility with the City Council for passing the budget. Richard Ravitch, then chairman of the Bowery Savings Bank and formerly head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and earlier the New York State Urban Development Corporation, was named chair of the commission by the mayor, who then added fourteen members, representing much of the city's geographic, demographic, and political diversity.

I was named the commission's executive director and counsel after several meetings with its chair, during which we discussed the extensive powers granted the commission by state law and the special opportunity it was being given to rewrite the city's governing document, or what was regularly referred to by some as the city's "constitution." Indeed, during the early proceedings, many members of the commission and its staff were infected by what one commissioner characterized as the "constitutional spirit" of our undertaking.

Now, however, more than two years have passed since the commission postponed its major reform efforts to await a decision of the United States Supreme Court, which took jurisdiction in the initiating case. Time has not dampened my enthusiasm for the task or diminished my sense of its importance (in fact, this sense has been enhanced by what I have learned), and it has forced me to refocus my attention from the hoped-for clean path of constitutional reform to a much

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This essay, first published in 1988, does not reflect events since it was written. Reprinted, with minor stylistic changes, from Urban, State and Local Law Newsletter 11 (Summer 1988): 1, 17-18. Used with permission.

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