New York City Votes to Restructure Its Government (November 13, 1989)

By Russell W. Baker, Special to The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 1989

IN a vote overshadowed by the election of New York City’s first black mayor, New Yorkers Tuesday approved a radical restructuring of their government. The move was an effort to comply with a mandate from the United States Supreme Court. By a 55-to-45 percent margin, voters agreed to transfer functions away from a century-old governmental body unique to New York, splitting its powers between the mayor and an expanded City Council.

“We’re just basically going to the normal American system of government, with a strong legislature and a strong executive,” said Frederick Schwarz, chairman of the city’s Charter Revision Commission, which drafted the changes.

Last March, the US Supreme Court ruled that the city’s eight-member Board of Estimate violated the one-person one-vote constitutional guarantee. The president of the city’s smallest borough had the same voting power on the board as the president of the most populous. The result was a disenfranchisement of minorities: Staten Island has just 400,000 voters, most of whom are white, and Brooklyn has more than 2 million – including a large black population.

For New Yorkers, there were other reasons to jettison the board. “We got rid of a historical anomaly,” said Richard Wade, an urban historian at the City University of New York’s graduate center, “one designed to protect the outer boroughs from Manhattan imperialism. I don’t think there’s going to be any weeping about the disappearance of the Board of Estimate. It was a cockpit of corruption for a long time – decisions were made among themselves, late at night.”

Effective Jan. 1, the Board of Estimate’s budget, contracts, and land-use powers will be divided between the mayor and the City Council, which will grow from 35 to 51 members in 1992 to give minorities more representation. The present council, frequently accused of incompetence and inactivity, has promised a new, vital role in decisionmaking as a result of the enhancement of its powers.

“It will be a government that is more democratic, easier to understand, and more efficient,” Mr. Schwarz said. But he cautioned that the change was not an end in itself. “One has to remember the charter is only a foundation,” he said. “What happens to the building depends on the people who are elected.”

Although the proposal critically redistributes political power in the city, there was little discussion of it among the voting populace. Instead, they focused on the emotion-charged mayoral race.

Opponents had objected to rushing the revisions onto the ballot at this time, preferring a lengthier debate of its provisions. They said New Yorkers did not understand the proposals and that few had participated in their formulation.

But supporters said the city was obligated to move quickly to comply with the court’s ruling. Although they admitted that the proposal was not perfect, they said that it would be possible to tinker with details later. The Justice Department has not completed its review of the substance of the charter revision and could still reject it, although that is unlikely.

Opponents warned of difficulties ahead. “It’s a radical and complex restructuring, being implemented when there is a new mayor, in the middle of a fiscal crisis, and when most of the municipal contracts come up for renewal,” said Pat Smith, a spokesman for Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden.

Opponents had argued that the Board of Estimate provided needed counterbalance to the mayor’s power. They also objected that the revision would dilute the influence of the five boroughs, which have had a strong sense of identity through the power of their respective borough presidents. To compensate, new – though more limited – roles have been carved out for the borough presidents.

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