What do our local government officials actually do? – A voter guide for the New York City local elections

Hey New York City! Did you know we have an election coming up this November 7th? Are you planning to vote? Do you know who you’re planning to vote for?

If your honest answer is “no,” you are not alone. In fact, you are in the overwhelming majority. Local elections in the United States have notoriously low turnout, and New York City is no exception – in the 2013 mayoral elections (the one that got current mayor Bill de Blasio elected), 13.8% percent of eligible voters voted. This year appears to be heading the same way – in the September 12th Democratic mayoral primary, only 14% of eligible turned out. (There was no Republican mayoral primary, so no equivalent statistic exists).

Now let me ask you another couple of questions. Do you know who is up for election this November? Not just the candidates, but what about the positions themselves? Once they’re elected, do know what they do?

The thing is, most people probably don’t, through no fault of their own. If you grew up in the US, you probably spent time in school learning about the federal government. Somewhere between kindergarten and 12th grade, you almost certainly heard about the Constitution, the three branches of government, the system of checks and balances, the whole shebang. As adults, we spend months on end obsessing about presidential elections and about the latest scandals from Washington. But when are we ever given the chance to learn about how our local government is organized, or what local government officials actually do? I’ll use myself as an example: while I had a vague sense of what, say, the New York City Council does, I’m not sure I could’ve actually explained it to anyone if they asked me back around the time of the September 12th primary. As such, I decided to look into it in advance of the November 7th general election.

What follows are the results of that research. Think of it as a voter guide of sorts, but a slightly unusual one. I will not tell you who to vote for, but rather I will aim to provide context on what you vote for when you cast your ballot for whichever mayoral candidates, or city council candidates, or other candidates you choose on November 7th. So, without further ado, I give you – what you are actually voting for in the New York City local elections.

What kind of government do we have?

Let’s start with the basics. Unlike the federal government, whose organization is codified in the Constitution, local governments have the ability to structure themselves more or less however they like. New York City has what’s called a “mayor-council” system of government with a “strong mayor” (a phrase which here is a technical designation and not a value judgement). This means that in our city, the mayor is the chief executive officer, with duties that include overseeing daily city operations and proposing budgets. The mayor is directly elected by city voters (as opposed to being appointed by the city council), and, while not a sitting member of that council, retains veto power over anything they pass. The separately-elected city council, on the other hand, acts like a unicameral mini-Congress – it elects its own leadership, sets its own agenda, has to approve (or decline to approve) the mayor’s budget, and can override the mayor’s veto. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is – the mayor-council system (unlike some of the alternative forms of local government) is modeled after the one laid out in the US Constitution, and looks an awful lot like a smaller version of your standard, run-of-the-mill state government.

While New York City, like most cities, doesn’t actually have a “constitution,” per se, we do have the Charter of the City of New York. Unlike our federal founding documents, the Charter is relatively easy to amend, and has been changed many times since 1898, when the previously separate boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx consolidated themselves into one city. Perhaps because it is so easily changed, it is significantly more detailed and specific than the US Constitution in terms of how different pieces of government should work. Much of the information below is sourced directly from the Charter of the City of New York, as last amended October 24, 2017.

The Mayor

Let’s start at the top. The mayor of New York is actually pretty powerful as far as city mayors go, although it may not seem it at first glance. According to the Charter, the powers of the Mayor include:

  • Preparing a budget and submitting it to the city council for review
  • Either signing or vetoing any local laws passed by the city council
  • Appointing (and firing) the heads of city agencies

Sounds pretty run-of-the-mill, right? Not quite. Unlike most city mayors (and government executives more broadly), that power to appoint people to head up the various city administrative departments is pretty limitless. According to the Charter, “the mayor shall appoint the heads of administrations, departments, all commissioners and all other officers not elected by the people, except as otherwise provided by law.” Insofar as I can tell, the only departments whose heads must be approved by the Council are the art commission, the board of standards and appeals, the civil service commission, the landmarks preservation commission, the tax commission, and the taxi and limousine commission. This means that ALL other powerful department heads are appointed by the mayor. Head of the education department? Check. Commissioner of the department of corrections? Check. Police commissioner? Check. Head of the board of health? Head of the department of city planning? Head of the department of transportation? Check. Check. Check. And remember, the mayor is doing all of this IN ADDITION to writing the city budget.

Here’s the bottom line: when you’re voting for the mayor, remember – you are voting for that person him or herself, but perhaps more importantly, you are voting for the kinds of people they will appoint to head up the extremely powerful and important departments of city administration. In New York City, whoever the mayor wants, the mayor gets (and whoever the mayor wants to fire, the mayor gets to fire)… which makes him or her INCREDIBLY powerful.

The City Council

So who can check the power of the mayor? Other than the voters, the only real answer to that is the New York City Council. As discussed above, the New York City Council is relatively weak compared to the mayor, but, as the city’s only legislative body, it is still very important in its own right. It consists of 51 members elected every four years by the voters in their respective districts, it meets a minimum of twice a month (except for July and August), and it can elects as its head a Speaker who presides over council meetings and who, like the US Speaker of the House, sets the agenda for what gets discussed and voted on.

Like the US House of Representatives or US Senate, the New York City council is responsible for introducing and voting on legislation that gets passed into “local law,” which means it has the force of law only within city limits. While the mayor has to sign any legislation passed and can veto any bill he or she wants, the council can override that veto with a two-thirds majority vote. The council also works with the mayor on the city budget and votes to approve its adoption, and reviews land use decisions, meaning they have the final say over any zoning changes, housing plans, and allocation of city-owned property. They have investigative oversight over the departments within their jurisdiction, and they provide “advice and consent” on appointments to the various Boards and Commissions of city administration. That said, they cannot appoint or remove the chairs of most of these departments, which significantly limits their power. Similarly, if the council does not act to approve or decline to approve a mayoral appointment within 30 days, the appointment gets automatically approved.

Ultimately, though, the council is a coequal branch of city government, with each member in charge of providing a voice in city government for the members in their district, so council elections can shape how our city runs in pretty major ways.

The Public Advocate

The New York City Council also contains one ex-officio member, and that is the Public Advocate. While the public advocate attends council meetings, can introduce legislation, and vote in the council in the event of a tie, he or she is not elected by any single district, nor is he or she appointed by the mayor. Rather, the Public Advocate is one of three city-wide offices elected directly by voters in all five boroughs.

But what does the public advocate do? According to the Charter, “the public advocate shall serve as the public advocate.”

Just kidding.

Well, actually I’m not – the Charter really does say that – but I’ll try to do it one better. The public advocate is the city’s ombudsman, or person in charge of investigating individual complaints against the government or government officials. More specifically, the public advocate may:

  • Run and monitor constituent complaint services
  • Review recurring and/or multi-borough complaints about city services and programs from individuals and groups, investigate those complaints, and come up with ways of addressing them
  • Investigate any alleged failures of city agencies or officers to follow the Charter, including potential conflicts of interest (as long as the behavior in question isn’t potentially criminal)
  • Hold public hearings as needed to address issues brought to their attention

So for example, if you have an ongoing complaint about your apartment management agency or your local school district, the public advocate may be one of the people you call. In the same way that you probably want your lawyer or your HR representative to be the best possible person to fight in your corner, so too do want the best possible public advocate to hold office.

Interestingly, the public advocate is also the first in the line of mayoral succession, so if the mayor cannot finish his or her term, the public advocate steps in. In that event, the Speaker of the City Council takes over as public advocate until a new one can be elected.

The Comptroller

The third and final city-wide elected official is the comptroller. If the mayor is the CEO of the city, the comptroller is the city’s CFO and auditor. The duties of the comptroller include:

  • Auditing all city agencies at least once every four years to make sure they’re spending money responsibly
  • Managing pension funds for city employees
  • Deciding whether or not to settle suits against or on behalf of the city, and if so, how much to settle for.
  • Reviewing city contracts
  • Reviewing the mayor’s proposed budget before it gets passed by the Council
  • Setting and enforcing wage rates for city employees

So basically, if you think about the care you put into choosing an accountant to manage your own finances, imagine doing that on behalf of the entire city. When you vote for comptroller, that’s what you’re doing. The comptroller is also third in the line of mayoral succession, should both the mayor and the public advocate be unable to serve in that capacity.

Borough Presidents

On November 7th, New York City residents will also vote for their respective borough presidents. The borough presidents are interesting in that they used to be very powerful – until 1989, they made up five of the eight seats of the now-defunct Board of Estimate, which was responsible for many of the budgeting and land-use duties now performed by the city council and the mayor. However, because the highly populous borough of Brooklyn held the same amount of influence over city government as the significantly less populous borough of Staten Island, the US Supreme Court determined in in Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris (1989) that this system violated the Constitutional principle of “one man, one vote,” and the Board of Estimate was subsequently disbanded. Since then, the borough presidents hold mostly ceremonial positions.

They do still have some powers, though. Each borough president can appoint one member to the City Planning Commission and one member to the Panel for Educational Policy. They are also well-placed to advocate for their respective boroughs during the city budgeting process, and they can make recommendations as a part of Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the process by which the city decides whether or not to allow development projects that break standing land use and zoning rules. Since projects that go through ULURP tend to be the big, expensive, controversial ones (the creation of Hudson Yards, the development of Brooklyn’s Pier 6, etc) and since the relevant borough president’s disapproval of a project changes the pass standard from seven out of thirteen “yea” votes from the City Planning Commission to nine of thirteen, this is one way in which the borough president can exercise their power. They also appoint community board members, can finance borough projects with small discretionary funds allocated to them by the city council, and can advocate for their boroughs in state and local governmental procedures.

In short, the borough president is kind of like their borough’s chief lobbyist in city government. You want the best lobbyist on your side, right? Vote for the best borough president.

District Attorneys

Although it’s not a city-wide decision, Manhattan and Brooklyn also have upcoming elections for their District Attorneys (DAs). Since the Manhattan DA election has recently drawn national attention, and the Brooklyn DA race involved a particularly nasty primary, seems worth taking a minute to look at what the DA actually does.

The district attorney job is a little different from the others mentioned here in that it’s actually a New York State position, as opposed to a city position. This means that the district attorneys report to the governor of New York State, and they aren’t actually a part of city government at all, but rather one of the 62 New York district attorneys representing each one of New York’s 62 counties. As per New York state law, the district attorneys are responsible for investigating and prosecuting crimes on behalf of their respective counties. Although each jurisdiction works slightly differently, they are also generally responsible for victim services, crime prevention, and other public service initiatives.

So think of it this way. When you vote for the DA, you are voting for a particular perspective on what deserves to be prosecuted, and how those prosecuted for various crimes deserve to be punished. Although they are not technically part of city government, they are an important part of how the justice system in our city works.

Final Thoughts and Additional Resources

So there you go. A summary of the major city positions up for election this November. Depending on your specific borough and district, you may see other elections for other positions in addition to those mentioned above. Similarly, you will also see three New York State ballot referenda, which address various state law questions. I encourage anyone reading this to do their own further research on these questions, and on the particular people they will have the chance to vote for on November 7th, 2017. Additional resources to aid in that research are listed below.

But most importantly, PLEASE VOTE. Who you vote for is your business, as is how much research you do in advance, but please, if you’ve read this far (or even if you’ve just skipped to the bottom), SHOW UP AND VOTE. All that nitty-gritty city government stuff only works because voters like you show up to the polls and make your voices heard.

Find out if you’re registered to vote in New York State:

https://voterlookup.elections.state.ny.us/

Find out where your polling place and hours are, as well as your city council district:

https://nyc.pollsitelocator.com/Search.aspx

The Gotham Gazette’s list of who’s running for what:

http://www.gothamgazette.com/city/6676-candidates-for-2017-city-elections-mayor-city-council-comptroller

Vote411’s rundown of who’s likely to be on your ballot (not 100% accurate, but pretty good). They also offer a “compare” feature, where you can compare the answers various candidates gave to their survey questions:

https://www.vote411.org/ballot

– Ariella Axelbank, 10/28/17

Sources

Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris (1989)
https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/489/688

“City Councils”
http://www.nlc.org/city-councils

“City Planning Commission”
https://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/about/commission.page

“De Blasio wins low-turnout Democratic mayoral primary”
http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/de-blasio-set-win-low-turnout-democratic-mayoral-primary-article-1.3489468

“Duties Of The Comptroller”
https://comptroller.nyc.gov/about/duties-of-the-comptroller/

“Forms of Municipal Government”
http://www.nlc.org/forms-of-municipal-government

“Letitia James”
https://advocate.nyc.gov/about

“List of Mayor-Controlled Public Schools”
http://www.nlc.org/list-of-mayor-controlled-public-schools

“Mayor-council government”
https://ballotpedia.org/Mayor-council_government

“Mayoral Powers”
http://www.nlc.org/mayoral-powers

New York City Charter
http://library.amlegal.com/alpscripts/get-content.aspx

“New York City Council: What We Do
https://council.nyc.gov/about/

“New York City Government”

Click to access city_government_players.pdf

“The Role of the Public Advocate”
http://archive.advocate.nyc.gov/role-public-advocate

“What Does a Borough President Do, Anyway?”
http://www.brownstoner.com/brooklyn-life/borough-president-role-responsibilities-new-york-city/

“What Is ULURP? And Why Do We Have It?”
http://www.brownstoner.com/development/ulurp/

“Who Votes for Mayor?: New York City”
http://www.whovotesformayor.org/cities/5718c84547ebb51a008ea3dd

“The Winners & Losers From Tuesday’s Widely Ignored NYC Primary”
http://gothamist.com/2017/09/13/democracy_vs_apathy.php

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