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

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

The Reemergence of Municipal Reform

GERALD BENJAMIN

FRANK J. MAURO

During the 1980s the structure of the New York City government's representative institutions was successfully challenged on two occasions in federal court. Both cases, Andrews v. Koch and Morris v. Board of Estimate, were heard by the same judge, Edward R. Neaher of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. And in each instance the city responded by creating charter revision commissions, pursuant to a state law that authorizes such bodies to propose directly to the voters, for their approval, changes in the city's charter—its fundamental governing document.

On 17 November 1981, Judge Neaher in Andrews decided that the charter provision allowing for two at-large council members from each of the city's five boroughs, elected by a limited nomination, limited voting system, violated the one-person, one-vote standard of the United States Constitution, since the boroughs varied widely in size — the smallest borough, Staten Island, had 350,000 residents, while Brooklyn, the largest, had 2.2 million. 1 In April 1982, in response to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals affirmation of Judge Neaher's decision in the Andrews case, Mayor Edward I. Koch appointed a charter revision commission chaired by Michael I. Sovern, president of Columbia University. At the time, it appeared that this commission might also have to consider changes in the structure of the Board of Estimate, since on 2 December 1981, less than a month after Judge Neaher's decision, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a test case challenging the constitutionality of that board on similar grounds. This unique body, with significant power in budget, land use, franchising, and procurement matters, had been composed since 1902 of New York City's three citywide elected officials (the mayor, the comptroller, and the City Council president) and its five borough presidents. Since 1958 each of the borough presidents has had equal voting power on the board.

The mayor's decision to respond to Andrews by appointing a charter commission was not viewed, at the time, as particularly noteworthy. It was, however, a significant step by New York City in utilizing the home rule charter-making authority available to it under general state law. For more than half a century, New

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