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The Charter Revision Commission: Everything you need to know

July 25, 2019 Jake Bittle
Eagle file photo by Mary Frost
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A commission of political leaders tasked with revising the New York City charter approved on Wednesday a final set of ballot questions for New Yorkers to vote on in November. The 15-person Charter Revision Commission agreed at their final major hearing to present voters with referendums on ranked-choice voting, reforming the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, and tweaking land-use and ethics policies.

Despite the significance of some of the commission’s proposals, its deliberations have largely flown under the radar this year. Here’s what you need to know about the commission, what it’s proposing and how it affects you.

Who are these people and why are they doing this?

The City Council created the 2019 Charter Revision Commission last year to take a long-overdue look at the city’s charter — the document that lays out the structure and function of New York City’s government — which hadn’t been revised since 1989.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Mayor Bill de Blasio each picked four members of the commission, and the five borough presidents, the public advocate and the city comptroller picked one apiece.

The commissioners are mostly former politicians and civic leaders themselves. They represent a wide range of political backgrounds: Chairperson Gail Benjamin and Commissioner Carl Weisbrod, for instance, have decades of experience working on land-use regulation. Benjamin oversaw the Domino Sugar and Hudson Yards developments as a senior City Council staffer, and Weisbrod was de Blasio’s city planning czar.

Meanwhile, former Republican Councilmember Stephen Faiala and political gadfly Sal Albanese got the opportunity to push for reforms they’ve advocated since serving on the council years ago.

What will I be voting on?

The commission came up with 20 proposed changes to the charter and grouped them into five categories: elections, police oversight, ethics, city budget and land use.

Wait, I’m confused. How many things am I actually voting on?

You’ll be voting on five questions, but each question includes multiple proposed changes to the charter. Some of the tweaks are so small that the commission thought it would be more confusing to present them as questions of their own.

What are the most important questions?

Probably the most significant will be Question 1, which would transform how primary elections work in New York. The referendum asks whether the city should institute ranked-choice voting for primaries in major races (mayor, public advocate, comptroller and councilmember).

Ranked-choice voting is a system where voters assign numerical preferences to the candidates in a race instead of picking just one. Whereas in a traditional election you might fill out your ballot as follows:

O The New York Times
O New York Post
X Brooklyn Eagle
O New York Daily News

In a ranked-choice election you’d fill it out this way:

2 The New York Times
4 New York Post
1 Brooklyn Eagle
3 New York Daily News

If a candidate gets 50 percent or more of the first-choice votes, they win. If no one gets a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes — let’s say it’s the Times — is eliminated. Everyone who put the Times as their first choice then gets their second choice counted as a first choice, and the results are recounted to see if one candidate has a majority.

It’s sort of like a runoff election that happens instantly, as the votes are being counted.

That’s confusing.

Maybe, but it’s already being used in Maine and some cities in California, and proponents say it could help make crowded primary elections more representative of the will of the people.

Right now, in a five-person primary, a candidate can win with as little as 21 percent of the vote total. In the 2013 mayoral election, for instance, de Blasio ended up with 40 percent of the vote in an 8-person field. And this proposal would take effect in January 2021, in time for that year’s mayoral election, which will probably feature a similarly large number of candidates as de Blasio is term-limited out of office.

Okay, what else?

Question 2 would strengthen the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which investigates accusations of misconduct against police officers and recommends discipline. Right now this board has only limited power and money to get information about misconduct, and the NYPD commissioner can disregard its recommendations willy-nilly.

Related: The law that shields police records, explained

This proposal would increase the CCRB’s budget; require a written explanation from the police commissioner when he deviates from the CCRB’s discipline recommendations; and empower the CCRB to investigate false statements made by officers who are under investigation. This last bit is particularly important, because there are currently no formal consequences for officers who lie to the CCRB while being investigated.

How big are those changes?

That depends on who you ask.

Many criminal-justice reform groups are decrying the CCRB changes as more or less cosmetic. Before the commission approved the ballot questions, protesters from Change the NYPD and Democratic Socialists of America stormed City Hall and demanded sweeping changes to the police misconduct process. They wanted the commission to create a new, more powerful review board whose members would be elected, not appointed by the mayor and other politicians. This concept was a non-starter during the deliberation process this year.

Related: Body cam backlog: NYPD lags on making footage public, report finds

On the other side, the mayor and police unions have taken issue with the “false statement” proposal, which was voted down in an early meeting but eventually added to the ballot. According to reporting in Gotham Gazette, de Blasio administration officials pressured members of the commission to scrap the language, arguing that the CCRB deals with police lying just fine as it is. During earlier meetings, some commissioners worried that the language would unjustly punish officers who lied by accident or about irrelevant matters, but the body eventually approved the question with only three “no” votes.

Anything else I should know about?

The whole set of proposals is available here, but none of the others are likely to be all that contentious. Other ballot questions extend the lobbying ban for former politicians from one year to two years, move toward establishing a “rainy-day fund” for the city to use during economic downturns, and up the budgets for the public advocate and borough president positions. Housing advocates and community groups had pushed the commission to create a citywide planning strategy for zoning and land use, but those proposals never made it very far.

Are these measures guaranteed to become law if voters okay them?


What happens now?

Now the commission spends three months educating the public about the ballot questions ahead of a vote on Nov. 5. Especially in regard to ranked-choice voting, which for many New Yorkers is an unfamiliar system, it’ll be crucial that voters understand the full scope of the measures they’re voting on.

Didn’t we do this last year? I remember flipping my ballot.

Sort of. The City Council created this commission in an attempt to assert its independence from the mayor, but de Blasio responded by fast-tracking his own charter review commission last year. That commission was also made up of political leaders from around the city, but the mayor appointed all 15 of its members.

De Blasio’s commission presented three ballot questions to voters last November, and voters approved all three. The measures proposed reforming campaign finance, creating a civic engagement commission — yes, another commission — and setting term limits for community board members.

Unlike last year, though, voters won’t be voting in any other major elections when they head to the polls in November, which will probably lead to lower turnout in most areas of the city. (The Queens district attorney election was this year’s highest-profile race, but it’s effectively over after the Democratic primary.) It’s likely that only the most dedicated voters will show up to express their views on charter language when they don’t have the chance to elect a mayor or a congressperson in the same trip.

Did we really need two charter review commissions? Why couldn’t the mayor and the City Council just work together?

A lot has changed since 1989, so there’s no shortage of potential tweaks and reforms for city officials to make to the charter — indeed, there’s probably enough left over for a third commission, if someone wants to create one.

The dueling commissions, however, can also be seen as another example of the rift between de Blasio and Speaker Johnson. Ahead of his bid for mayor in 2021, Johnson has distanced himself from de Blasio at every opportunity, pushing the mayor on big political issues like municipal control of the MTA and stepping in during emergencies like the ConEd blackout in Midtown last week, which occurred while de Blasio was in Iowa, campaigning for the presidency.

Jake Bittle is a reporter and researcher who lives in Flatbush. You can find him on Twitter.

Correction (9:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article erroneously stated that these ballot measures, once passed by the public, are non-binding. That was incorrect and the article has been updated. We regret the error. 

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  1. Ranked-choice voting is a system where voters assign numerical preferences to the candidates in a race instead of picking just one.

    Technically true, but the ranked-choice ballot isn’t the important part. The important part is how the votes are tallied to select a winner. This proposal uses the instant-runoff method of tallying, which is about the worst one there is. It will fail from vote-splitting and elect unrepresentative candidates.

    I don’t understand why people are still pushing Instant-Runoff Voting after its flaws have been pointed out so many times. There are so many better ways to assess the will of the voters. Why does everyone consistently go with the worst?