Reflections on the 2018 Charter Revision Process

Image credit: New York City Council.

The 2018 New York City Charter Revision Commission, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, recommended three proposals, all of which were approved by the voters in the November 2018 general election.  The proposals related to campaign finance, civic engagement and community boards, and were largely a result of the Charter Revision Commission’s process that emphasized accessibility for all, including those who historically have not had their voices fully considered as part of the Charter revision process. The aim of the Commission was to strengthen democracy and make City government more accessible to New Yorkers.

For us, the story of the 2018 Commission is one squarely focused on New Yorkers and the ways they interact with government. New Yorkers are often blamed for low rates of voting and lack of civic participation. The experience of the 2018 Charter Revision Commission, however, was that New Yorkers wanted more access and involvement with their government. The challenge facing the 2018 Charter Revision Commission was to identify and eliminate barriers to meaningful access and engagement. The Commission encouraged broad public participation in its work with the result that the Commission was able recommend ballot proposals designed to make City government more accessible to a broader range of New Yorkers.


The Commission and Its Approach

The racial and ethnic diversity of the Commission’s fifteen members was one of its greatest strengths in achieving the goal of making government more accessible. The Commissioners represented every borough and brought an extraordinary range and depth of professional, academic and personal experiences. The panel included immigrants, community leaders and members of various religious groups. This diversity was particularly critical to a Commission considering issues relating to democracy. The panel’s Commissioners were able to offer a variety of voices and perspectives during the Commission’s deliberations. In some cases, their backgrounds allowed them to better understand and identify with the experiences of those testifying or submitting testimony at public meetings.

Cesar Perales, the Commission’s Chair, is the former Secretary of State of New York and has had a long and distinguished career, including co-founding the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. During the Commission’s hearings, Perales described his experiences in handling ground-breaking litigation relating to immigrants’ rights and legislative redistricting, and how those experiences related to current challenges experienced by City residents.

Dr. Una Clarke, another Commissioner, served as a New York City council member, representing Brooklyn’s 40th Council District for ten years starting in 1991. During the Commission’s hearings, Dr. Clarke often spoke of her experience working as a Caribbean-American organizer, advocate and elected official. Dr. Clarke’s experiences as a member of a historically underrepresented group seeking access to power deepened the Commission’s thinking about civic participation.

Commissioner Annetta Seecharran is the Executive Director of Chhaya Community Development Corporation, which works with New Yorkers of South Asian origin to advocate for and build economically stable, sustainable, and thriving communities. Her 25 years of direct experience representing South Asian New Yorkers in Queens gave her particular insight into the importance of ensuring that government is accessible to all communities, regardless of primary language spoken or geographical distance from City Hall.

The diverse perspectives and experiences of all the Commissioners allowed them to engage in dialogue with New Yorkers in important and meaningful ways and helped to foster greater community engagement during the Commission’s public outreach process. The experience of this Commission demonstrates that the capacity for government officials to relate to local communities can be an important factor in whether a public process is accessible to individuals outside of the traditional power centers of City government.


The Commission’s “Mandate” and Approach

The New York City Charter defines the organization, functions, and essential procedures and policies of City government. It sets forth the institutions and processes of the City’s political system and broadly defines the authority and responsibilities of City agencies and elected officials.

State law permits the mayor to establish a Charter Revision Commission consisting of between 9 and 15 members. A Charter Revision Commission reviews the entire Charter, holds hearings to solicit public input, and issues a report outlining findings and recommendations. Proposed Charter amendments drafted by the Commission are presented to the voters at a general election and, if adopted, become law.

The 2018 Commission reviewed the powers and duties of the City’s elected officials, City agencies, boards and commissions, as well as the City’s various decision making processes, such as the Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), the council member districting process, and the budget process. In this respect, the Commission followed in the footsteps of previous Charter Revision Commissions by conducting a “top to bottom” or “vertical review” of the functions and processes of City government and the balance of power between the City’s elected officials.

The Charter Revision Commission, during the course of its travels across the City, also began to review the Charter from a different perspective. New Yorkers regularly challenged the Commission to consider questions about the health of our local democracy that cut across all branches of government. They asked the Commission to consider how City government, as a whole, can be more accessible and what the City can do to be more responsive to the needs of New Yorkers who have been historically underrepresented and underserved. In every borough, in contexts ranging from elections to delivery of agency services, the Commission was asked to consider the perspective of limited English proficient New Yorkers, immigrant communities, people with disabilities, veterans, people who are homeless, people who are incarcerated, and myriad other groups and individuals.

In response, the Commission conducted what it considered a “horizontal review” of how the Charter related to the various communities and groups who participated in the Commission’s public process. Many of these comments raised multiple issues affecting diverse communities and populations. The common message to the Commission was simple: don’t start with the government and look at what to change; begin with New Yorkers and examine what it is like to access City government from their perspective.



The Commission achieved a robust and far-reaching public outreach program that prioritized inclusion and accessibility and which stretched across all five boroughs. The Commission held two rounds of public hearings in each borough. At the second round of public hearings, New Yorkers were invited to comment on the Commission’s preliminary report as well as offer new ideas. Locations were chosen, in part, based on proximity to public transportation to provide convenient access to large segments of each borough’s residents.

The Commission employed an aggressive (and sometimes humorous) social media strategy, and direct outreach effort to New Yorkers through multiple community forums and tabling events, including targeted efforts to engage youth, immigrant New Yorkers, and veterans. These more informal community forums were extremely productive both in informing New Yorkers about the ongoing revision process and in soliciting input. The result was an iterative process wherein the Commission’s work was responsive to and shaped by the ideas of New Yorkers.

The Commissioners emphasized efforts to include in the process those who spoke languages other than English. Public notices and materials were translated into ten languages and interpretation services were offered at all public meetings. One notable outreach effort was a multilingual tele-town hall designed to reach limited English proficient New Yorkers. This telephonic event featured various Commissioners fielding questions along with comments from members of the public. More than 4,000 people listened to the broadcast. Interpretations were provided for speakers of Bengali, Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Korean, who could also ask questions in those languages. The Commission, to achieve simultaneous interpretation, developed a unique logistical plan and protocol to ensure timely and accurate interpretation. Despite the operational hurdles involved, future Commissions should consider employing this method of outreach.

The Commission conducted its work under significant time pressure given the statutory deadline for submitting proposals in advance of the 2018 general election. The Commission’s successful deployment of novel outreach methods demonstrated that meaningful public engagement efforts are possible, even under time and operational constraints.


The Commission’s Proposals

The proposals developed by the Commission were shaped by the composition of the Commission, its approach to its legal mandate, and the robust public engagement it conducted.  In varying ways, each proposal was designed to bring City government closer to New Yorkers.

  1. Campaign Finance

Mayor de Blasio highlighted the importance of strengthening the City’s campaign finance system during his 2018 State of the City address in which he announced his intention to convene a Charter Revision Commission. The public responded to the mayor’s message with sustained public comments asking the Commission to amend the City’s campaign finance laws in various ways. Most often, the Commission was asked to lower contribution limits, increase the ratio at which campaign contributions are matched by City dollars, and lift the existing cap on public funds.

The Commission reviewed the large volume of comments on this topic received during the Commission’s first round of public hearings and voted to focus on campaign finance reform and to proactively engage experts, advocates, the Campaign Finance Board, candidates and other stakeholders. The Commission also recognized that because the City’s campaign finance system is a national model, any change would have to be supported by careful deliberation and study. The Commission’s final proposal resulted from extensive research, outreach, review and analysis during which the Commission examined the impact of each proposed change on the City’s budget and on the ability of candidates to run viable campaigns.

The Commission proposed lowering the contribution limits for all candidates for City elected offices (mayor, comptroller, public advocate, city council) and increasing the public matching funds available to candidates who participate in the public financing system. The changes were designed to reduce corruption and the perception of corruption, and to promote greater trust that everyone, not just large donors, has access to the City’s elected officials.  With these changes, small dollar donations will go further and candidates will be receiving less from the largest donors.

The overwhelming positive response to the Commission’s proposals on election day signaled that the Commission had tapped into something fundamental. On the most basic level, New Yorkers want to believe that the system is accessible, fair and free from outside influence. Our local democracy is threatened if there is a widespread perception that the only people who have access to the City’s elected officials are those who can afford large campaign contributions. If the public trusts that City officials are exercising their duties free from corruption the public will more likely be engaged in the City’s political life.

The 2018 Commission was the fifth Charter Revision Commission to propose amendments to the City’s campaign finance system that were affirmed by the voters. Through this series of changes, the history of the City’s campaign finance laws has consistently moved in the direction of making the political system more accessible by placing greater power in the hands of New Yorkers to direct how campaigns are financed.

  1. Civic Engagement

There are many ways in which City agencies and elected officials seek to engage New Yorkers in the decisions that affect them, but prior to the Commission’s work, there was no single agency dedicated to this goal. In public testimony, the Commission heard that the City’s efforts have been fractured, inconsistent and can sometimes leave groups of New Yorkers behind such as limited English proficient New Yorkers or certain geographic communities. The Commission also heard that, even amidst low voter turnout, New Yorkers were participating in, and contributing to, civic life in ways that demonstrated a connection with their communities and each other. New Yorkers volunteer in significant numbers for community-based and religious organizations. They adopt public plazas, parks and other common spaces. They take time from family, work, and other obligations to demonstrate in large numbers on issues of local, national, and international significance.  In every borough and neighborhood, New Yorkers express concerns about how the needs of residents and local businesses are being met.


Civic Engagement Commission

The Commission heard testimony advocating for the creation of a vehicle to coordinate and enhance the City’s efforts to promote engagement with City government.  Speakers sought governmental help that was local, community based, and culturally relevant. The Commission responded to these comments by proposing a Civic Engagement Commission.

The Civic Engagement Commission’s mandate combines specific programmatic requirements with a broader mission to support and partner with City agencies and community groups in their existing civic engagement efforts. The three major programs that the Civic Engagement Commission will administer are citywide participatory budgeting, a poll site interpreter program, and additional resources for community boards.

The mayor, council speaker and borough presidents appoint the members of the Commission and are expressly required to consider a broad range of individuals, including those who are representative of, or who have experience working with, immigrants, people with limited English proficiency, people with disabilities, students, youth, seniors, veterans, community groups, advocacy groups that seek to promote transparency and accountability in government or protect civil rights, and groups or categories of residents that have been historically underrepresented in or underserved by city government and its processes.

Participatory budgeting; Participatory budgeting was presented to the Commission as a unique tool for engaging those not typically active in civic decision making such as community members who are ineligible to vote due to age or citizenship status. Some New York City residents have engaged in participatory budgeting since 2011 in council districts where council members have chosen to establish programs.  Under the new Charter provision the Civic Engagement Commission will administer a citywide participatory budgeting program. Participatory budgeting will give residents of all communities the opportunity to weigh in on tangible changes to their communities, such as supporting funding for renovation of a local playground or senior center. The Civic Engagement Commission will establish multiple methods for public participation, including public meetings and online tools designed to promote participation by non-citizens, immigrants, youth, students, seniors, veterans, and people living with disabilities or with limited English proficiency.

Language access:  Approximately 23 percent of all New Yorkers and over 1.8 million people are limited in English proficiency. The Commission received a large volume of public comments about the need to expand the City’s language access services so that all New Yorkers can fully participate in the City’s civic life, regardless of their language spoken.  As one example, the Commission received nearly one-hundred signed letters written in Bengali, Chinese, and Korean asking the Commission to take on this issue. At the Commission’s hearings and issue forums, the Commission heard compelling testimony about the need to ensure that New Yorkers with limited English proficiency can fully exercise the right to vote. In response to this testimony, the Commission charged the Civic Engagement Commission with establishing a program of providing language interpreters at poll sites throughout the City.

Community boards: The Commission received many comments expressing the view that the current level of support and technical staff to community boards is inadequate, particularly in the area of land use. The Civic Engagement Commission will be charged with providing assistance to community boards, where requested, as they participate in the City’s land use processes. In addition to providing resources related to land use, the Civic Engagement Commission will provide language assistance and technological resources to community boards in order to ensure that their work is visible, accessible, and inclusive.

  1. Community Boards

Unlike the topics of campaign finance and civic engagement, the subject of community boards was not raised by the mayor in his State of the City address. The Commission’s attention to this topic arose organically from the Commission’s public engagement process. New Yorkers testified about community boards at every public hearing of the Commission. Because of the overwhelming volume of public comment the Commissioners discussed the importance of taking on this subject even before the specific contours of the community board proposal took shape.

The issue of term limits for community board members, which was raised frequently in the public testimony, triggered a robust public debate that played out across the five boroughs. This debate was well exemplified at the Commission’s second Queens hearing when Vice Chair Godsil engaged in a thoughtful colloquy with a young and energetic Queens resident who had repeatedly tried to get on her community board without success. This exchange was followed by an equally engaging dialogue between the Vice Chair and a long-time member of a Queens community board who expressed her concerns about loss of institutional knowledge resulting from term limits. At the end of a series of exchanges of this kind, the Vice Chair noted, “I would just like to note and thank all of you because the fact that we had four people with different points of view who gave such thoughtful testimony and treated each other so civilly is exactly the kind of civic engagement we need to see.” (July 26, 2018, Queens, NY).

Ultimately, the Commissioners felt compelled to put the issue of term limits for community board members to the voters. One way to look at the voter’s overwhelming approval of term limits is that New Yorkers have faith that their communities have enough qualified candidates to assuage concerns about loss of institutional knowledge. Another possible explanation is that New Yorkers gave priority to creating new opportunities for a wider group of people to access local government by serving on community boards over institutional concerns.

The Commission’s work on community boards did not end with term limits. Other elements approved by the voters will make community boards more reflective of the communities they represent and more effective in that representation. The Commission heard testimony that aspects of the current community board appointment process are sometimes opaque and inconsistent across boroughs, which creates a perception among some members of the community that the process is not fair or merit-based. This perception detracts from public confidence in community boards and discourages new applicants.

The Commission proposed, and the voters adopted, several changes intended to bring more uniformity and transparency to the process of appointing members to community boards and to encourage diversity in appointments such as requiring borough presidents to seek out persons of diverse backgrounds for appointment and adding application and reporting requirements.

The Commission believed that these reforms will provide greater transparency and uniformity in the process for appointing members to community boards, while preserving sufficient flexibility for borough presidents in exercising their appointment authority.



Working on the 2018 Charter Revision Commission was a rewarding and novel experience. Both of us had prior experience working on City Council legislation, and we were excited by the opportunity to participate in a different process for amending the City’s Charter. Although Charter Revision Commissions have regularly played a role in shaping the structure of City government, they remain a bit of a mystery to the public and, indeed, they are unusual organizations. As a body appointed by the Mayor with its own staffing and budget, our Commission functioned day to day as an independent agency. The Commission also served an important quasi-legislative function in that its proposals, once adopted by the voters, have the full force and effect of local law. Charter revision commissions can set out changes to the City’s structure of government that extend beyond what would be legally permissible or, at times, politically feasible by the City Council. This provides a commission with the freedom to engage with substantive problems that are not normally the subject of local legislation. Because of this unique role it is especially important for a Charter Revision Commission to approach its work in a way that promotes meaningful access and engagement by the public.

The 2018 Commission’s proposals were the result of several factors, some unique to this Charter revision process, and some applicable to future commissions. First, every Charter Revision Commission is appointed in its own political and historical context, and this one was no different. In convening this Commission, Mayor de Blasio voiced his own goals for its work. The mayor’s focus on campaign finance reform and other tools to bolster civic engagement were undoubtedly informed by a broader set of local, statewide and national concerns about the strength of democratic institutions voiced by the constituents that he represents in his elected office.

Once the Commission began its work, it sought to fulfill its legal mandate under state law to review the entire Charter. The Commission was required to examine the various aspects of the City’s governing bodies and processes as a matter of law. As a matter of good policy, it went further and developed a dynamic and iterative process for public input. The Commission’s philosophy of inclusion and access shaped the public process in important and innovative ways, and the public process shaped the Commission’s work.

Finally, the Commissioners’ own experiences and qualifications allowed them to work under enormous time pressure to formulate a set of proposals that were responsive to the public record and reflective of the larger themes identified by the mayor. This required the Commissioners to exercise sound judgment about which issues to put to the voters and which to leave for future Commissions to consider. The Commission’s willingness to address barriers to access and inclusion throughout its process provides a useful lesson for future Charter Revision Commissions and other city agencies and officials that are looking to meaningfully engage New Yorkers in local government decision-making.

By: Christine Billy and Matt Gewolb

Matt Gewolb is the Associate Dean and General Counsel of New York Law School. He served as the Executive Director of the 2018 New York City Charter Revision Commission.

Christine Billy is an Associate Counsel for the New York City Department of Sanitation and Adjunct Professor at New York University Law School. She served as Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel for the 2018 New York City Charter Revision Commission. 

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