Thursday, October 16, 2008

Like Atlantic Yards, the effort to remove term limits is a backroom deal

OK, Mayor Mike Bloomberg's effort to circumvent voter-imposed term limits by having the City Council overturn them (and thus reward themselves) isn't directly connected to Atlantic Yards.

But the same spirit of backroom governance--that the end justifies the means, and real estate power players deserve deference--animates both anti-democratic plans. (The City Council holds a hearing today. The tally among Council Member: 14 for the Council overturn, 19 for a public vote, and 18 with no public position, with many of the latter, I'd bet, leaning toward the Council overturn.)

Bloomberg didn't change his position on term limits until he got the city's power brokers and top three newspapers on his side. Forest City Ratner didn't unveil Atlantic Yards until Bloomberg, Sen. Chuck Schumer, and a host of other elected leaders were on board. (Were the newspaper editorialists on board? Likely--and the New York Times, FCR's business partner, was a gimme.)

Bloomberg justifies overturning term limits without a voter referendum by claiming exigent circumstances and offering spurious assertions (e.g., an election would be too costly). Atlantic Yards boosters justified the state bypass of the city's more rigorous Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) by citing the presence of state property, but even former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, in hindsight, believes the project should've gone through ULURP.

Atlantic Yards, Municipal Art Society president Kent Barwick has mused, might be "this generation's Penn Station," a galvanizing event to "awaken the desire for a more rational process.” Similarly, as Daily News columnist Errol Louis wrote, in a 10/1/08 column, "Bloomberg may end up surprised by the depth and intensity of opposition" to his power grab. (Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group called term limits “the biggest civic issue of the year, maybe the decade,” the Times reported.)

While Barwick apparently did not comment on term limits or endorse the mayor, he did put in a good word for Bloomberg, telling the Architect's Newpsaper, “Still, you have to respect the vision and leadership. Not since the Lindsay administration, which I worked in, has there been so much, well, not responding to other people’s plans but making their own.”

Atlantic Yards, however, was delivered as a fait accompli, an acceptance of Forest City Ratner's plan. So has the term limits reversal, with only two public hearings, both at City Hall, and none in the boroughs.

And while it may take a while to explain Atlantic Yards, even a fourth-grader gets the term-limits issue. As City Council candidate Brad Lander wrote: My son Marek put it best: "You can't change the rules in the middle of a kickball game just so your team will win. It's cheating. Even if you're the mayor."

That's why the Working Families Party, the Citizens Union, Common Cause, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and other organizations and unions have quickly organized an opposition under the banner It's Our Decision.

The $15 million election

Newsday, the one newspaper to break from the pack, editorialized:
As opposition to a third term mounts, Bloomberg - imperiously and very publicly - has sought support from cosmetics heir and term-limit champion Ron Lauder. Because Lauder bankrolled the 1990s term-limit votes, he now has the right to undo them? These are rich men toying with the purchase of the public will. Never has the city seemed so nakedly for sale.

Bloomberg dismisses the idea of holding a special election on the issue - a proposal some officials favor - as unlikely to withstand a legal challenge. Very few people vote in such elections. Besides, the roughly $15-million expense would be an outrageous extravagance during these tight fiscal times.

Given that Bloomberg plans to spend $80 million on his third term, having spent at least $74 million in each of his two races, isn't the claim of extravagance a little much?

The public--at least before Bloomberg's reversal--might have been ready to overturn term limits. Now, a referendum might be more complicated. Still, if we can afford $100 million to reimburse Forest City Ratner for its generous buyouts, couldn't we afford $15 million?

The forces at odds

Those who support the maintenance of term limits, including mayoral candidate Rep. Anthony Weiner are not without self-interest. As the Brooklyn Paper has pointed out, leading Brooklyn City Council opponents Letitia James and Bill de Blasio would gain seniority in Council Speaker and the frontrunner's role in the race to succeed Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. (In fact, de Blasio has changed his mind, as the Post reported yesterday.)

But it was the right change. And the political battle is getting ugly. The Post reported yesterday that Council Speaker Christine Quinn is offering committee chairmanships to sway undecided members and threatening to take away such posts for those who support term limits.

The role of the press

The Times, the Post, and the Daily News all backed Bloomberg in editorials published (coordinated?) on 9/30/08, in some cases using backflip logic.

The Times editorialized:
It makes a lot of people uncomfortable to legislatively rewrite a law that voters have twice approved at the ballot box — in 1993 and 1996. It makes us uncomfortable, too, and we previously took the position that any change should be left to the voters. But we have concluded now that changing the law legislatively does not make us nearly as uncomfortable as keeping it. It is within the rights of the Council, itself an elected body, to do so.

The Daily News editorialized:
In the best of all worlds, the voters would have their say in yet another term limits referendum. But the deadline passed before the ground began to quake under the city. So, the question will go to the City Council. Then, in 2009, democracy will prevail as the voters have their say on hiring Bloomberg again.

The Post didn't even give a nod to the public in its 9/30/08 editorial:
One other thing: We've never supported term limits. Voters should get to choose whomever they want as mayor, be it a two-term incumbent or a newcomer. That's true democracy. After all, it makes little sense to boot someone who's done great work for the city, just because of some abstract notion about changing leaders periodically.

(Does that mean the newspaper opposes term limits for the presidency?)

The Times, alone among the three boosters, was the only editorial page to acknowledge that the Council itself was voting to extend its tenure. But the editorialists were not alarmed:
One common complaint is that they force politicians to focus on small-bore projects that can be achieved quickly rather than visionary ideas. The constant churning also diminishes accountability in governmental institutions like the City Council.

That's a legitimate issue for debate; is two terms too few? On the other hand, the opposite of "constant churning" is entrenched politicians--hasn't anybody looked at the State Senate and Assembly lately? Do Borough Presidents deserve to stay for 24 years, as Brooklyn's Howard Golden did (and Markowitz may secretly hope)?

Mark Winston Griffith, a candidate for the 36th District in Central Brooklyn, whose current representative, Al Vann, wants to overturn term limits, put it eloquently: But before Al Vann was a Councilman, he was the Assemblyman for this area. And in 2002 he and Annette Robinson, who had herself been in the City Council before being term-limited, essentially swapped positions. Between them they have occupied both the City Council and State Assembly for over fifty years. During those years, a new generation of working and middle class voters have moved into the area and have been grappling with an evolving new set of issues like encroaching development, uneven public school options, and the need to rebuild the North Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant commercial corridors....

When our political system works effectively, veteran incumbents help their constituents benefit from their hard earned experience, seniority and leverage. However, when incumbents linger too long, and use their accumulated power to resist political transformation, they can crush hope in the idea that voting can actually bring about social change.


More sensible voices

Henry Stern's New York Civic, Daily News columnist Louis, and lobbyist Richard Lipsky, about whom I have written critically regarding their support for Atlantic Yards, have argued forcefully against the power grab.

Louis commented, in a 10/5/08 column headlined Have they no shame?, "With his announcement, Bloomberg commenced a power-grab that he had once accurately described as 'disgusting.'"

Lipsky summarized the editorial wars as Newsday Challenges Pravda. And Stern has written thoughtfully about the difference among the officeholders who would benefit from the removal of term limits:
The preposterous excuse for this self-serving maneuver is the world-wide financial crisis, an admittedly serious problem which has nothing whatsoever to do with the City Council. There would probably be value for the city in Mayor Bloomberg being eligible to serve a third term, as Mayors LaGuardia, Wagner and Koch did in the last century. An extension would be an appropriate subject for a new referendum...

Stern notes that the comptroller’s position "considerably less" important than the mayor's, and the public advocate "has nothing to do with the financial crisis." While he considers the borough presidencies useful enough positions "both to represent borough-wide interests and to groom candidates for higher office," he considers eight years in such positions--often connected to political machines--"more than enough."

While Stern, as a one-time mentor of Bruce Ratner, has recused himself from AY commentary. Louis and Lipsky have been vigorous cheerleaders. Perhaps they'll acknowledge the contradiction between their skepticism of the mayor and their lack of skepticism of Atlantic Yards.

What about Yassky?

One uncommitted Council Member is Brooklyn's David Yassky, one of seven members targeted by It's Our Decision to state their position.

Yassky, in the Oct. 7 Times, supported Speaker Quinn: “This is an issue that has produced strong feelings on both sides, so she is acting exactly as a legislative leader should act — which is to guide the debate rather than get out in front and prejudge it.”

Now Quinn supports overturning term limits. And Yassky--well, yesterday, he told the New York Times that he has long supported a referendum, and that most of his constituents agree, but that he thinks overturning term limits in Council might provide needed stability.

The alternative explanation is that he's protecting his seat and his relationship with Quinn rather than entering a tough race for Comptroller. His equivocation, in fact, is reminiscent of his wavering on Atlantic Yards, which at one point left onlookers confused as to whether he supported or opposed the project. ("Critical supporter" may be the best shorthand, though his criticism has increased.)

However, as noted above, the term limits issue is less complicated than Atlantic Yards.

On his web site, at least, Yassky says he's running for Comptroller: "We have begun to forge a new and exciting brand of progressive urban government. We have strived for a politics that elevates the common good over special interests, promotes innovation over bureaucracy, and values pragmatic results over partisan rhetoric."

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