By Alexander Dworkowitz
New Yorkers voted Tuesday to approve all five ballot proposals put forth by the City Charter Revision Committee, appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in June. The commission was chaired by former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, and 14 other business, civic and religious leaders are members.
But with a crowded ballot and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, many civic organizations raised questions over whether or not voters were well-informed, a concern shared by a Board of Elections official.
“We’re always concerned when there’s a ballot proposal,” said Naomi Bernstein, spokeswoman for the Board of Elections. “Let’s hope the people read (the Campaign Finance Board’s Voters Guide.) [yes] Unfortunately, those who don’t read it are the ones who should be reading it.”
The ballot proposals were similar to those that a different Revision Committee put forth in 1999. But two years ago, the committee came up with only one broad proposal.
The first proposal called for an amendment to make the Administration for Children’s Services an independent charter agency. ACS would be empowered to perform many social service functions, including investigating cases of child abuse and providing day care. Currently, the city Department of Social Services handles children’s services.
The second proposal asked for the creation of “gun-free” school safety zones, the banning of the sale of all firearms to people under 21 and a requirement that all Board of Education employees immediately report crimes committed within schools.
The third proposal sought to transform the City Commission on Human Rights and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs into charter agencies. The proposal also asked for the protection of immigrant’s right to access city services.
The fourth proposal called for the creation of a unified Department of Public Health as a charter agency to integrate the Department of Health and the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services. The proposal also asked for the expansion of the Board of Health from five to 11 members.
The final proposal sought to establish the Emergency Management Department, the Organized Crime Control Commission and the Office to Combat Domestic Violence as charter agencies to advance public safety.
Giuliani said he saw the charter revisions as a means of making much of the work of his administration permanent.
“In the last 7 1/2 years, a number of initiatives and programs have been implemented to make government more accountable, more responsive, more transparent and ultimately more effective,” Giuliani said back in June. “However, these innovations could be watered down or eliminated altogether if they are not permanently incorporated into the City Charter.”
But many civic groups have come out against the proposals.
“The less there is in a constitution, the broader it is, the better we are,” said Laura Altschuler, coordinator of special projects at the League of Women Voters. “The charter should be more like the U.S. Constitution. You don’t need cross every “t” and dot every “i.” Once it’s in the charter, you’re stuck with it.”
“In general, we take a very dim view of the process that led up to these proposals,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “They were created in haste with little time for public comment.
“Much of these proposals don’t require an amendment to the charter,” Russianoff added. “They can be resolved between the new mayor and the new city council.”
Before the elections, Altschuler said she feared that the lack of knowledge about the proposals and their general wording would cause people to vote against their own interests.
“They are simply phrased,” she said. “They sound like motherhood and apple pie.”
Reach Reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.