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Charter revision sparks debate before election

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Proponents and opponents of a ballot measure to clarify the rules of mayoral succession are campaigning ahead of the November election and pleading their cases to the public.

Members of the New York City Charter Revision Commission are coming out before Election Day to make their case in favor of the ballot question that will decide what happens if a mayor dies or resigns from office.

Mayor Bloomberg appointed a 13-member commission on July 13, which immediately began to hold hearings on the role of the public advocate in mayoral succession. The commission decided on the final wording of the ballot question which, according to Chairman Robert McGuire, reduces the limbo period a temporary mayor can serve from a maximum of 15 months down to only 60 days.

“Our major concern was that in a time of crisis or instability, the voters need an opportunity to as quickly as possible vote for a successor mayor,” McGuire said. “It’s important for citizens of the city to know that someone running the city is someone they voted for.”

Under current law if the mayor resigns or dies, he or she is succeeded by the public advocate, which is a citywide elected office now held by Betsy Gotbaum. The public advocate could serve as acting mayor from anywhere from 100 days to 15 months, depending on when the elected mayor dies or resigns.

McGuire said the ballot question also asks voters whether they approve of the removal of the public advocate as presiding officer of the City Council, one of four options the commission considered instead of suggesting amendments to state law on mayoral succession. McGuire said the position is mostly ceremonial and would not take away the power of the public advocate to introduce legislation for council approval.

He also responded to claims that the ballot question was a personal attack on current Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who is opposed to the measure.

“This was not done to reduce down her office,” McGuire said. “The commission never personalized this.”

Gotbaum claims the ballot question is a step by the commission toward eventually eliminating her position. She has said the ballot measure will decrease her ability to act as a check to mayoral decisions.

But Bradley Tusk, executive director of the charter commission, said the public advocate will not lose any power if voters approve the ballot measure. He also said the commission, which held five public hearings and four public meetings to discuss the ballot question, had ample time to address public questions on the ballot measure.

“It’s a simple thing to do and the right thing to do,” he said.

But Gene Russianoff, a senior attorney with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said his and other organizations oppose the measure because it was formulated in a short period of time with little public comment.

“We think (the ballot question) is a poorly thought out product of a very hasty eight-week charter revision,” he said. “There was very little opportunity for New Yorkers to participate.”

Russianoff also said voters are unaware that the special election that would be held if the mayor dies or resigns would be non-partisan, giving an edge to wealthier, popular candidates who have the resources to run a campaign in fewer than 60 days.

“Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of the proposal. But they cannot about the poor process by which it was developed,” he said in a statement. “This proposal would undermine one of the few meaningful checks and balances on the city’s strong mayoral form of government.”

Other civic groups, including the League of Women Voters, CommonCause/NY and Citizens Union, agree.

“The League of Women Voters supports an open, participatory, deliberative process when considering revisions to our City Charter. The proposal submitted for voter approval on the November ballot does not meet this standard,” said Robin Bahr, chair of The League of Women Voters of the City of New York in a statement.

Voters, however, will have the final decision on outcome of the charter revision ballot question on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 156

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