Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied
by Henry Stern
Thank you to the New York Civic for granting us permission to publish this piece.
Commission Delays Two-Term Limit
For City Officials Until A.D. 2021,
However the Public Votes This Year
The Charter Revision Commission appointed by Mayor Bloomberg voted last night to postpone by eleven years the effective date when a two-term limit would take effect, even if the voters approve it in referendum this fall.
After a motion to put the eight-year limit into effect now was defeated, (it received six votes, eight being needed to pass), and a so-called 'hybrid' motion for a 2017 effective date also failed with six votes, Commission Chairman Matthew Goldstein brought the 2021 date up for a vote and it was approved 12-0, although it was not a compromise between the other two alternatives, but mandated an even longer delay in carrying out the decision made in the public referendum.
On the two previous motions, the chairman had called the roll and voted last. On the 2021 proposal he called on himself first and dramatically voted 'Yes'. The eleven other members present followed suit.
A large majority of the witnesses who testified last night supported implementation of the referendum at the next Council election, scheduled for 2013. The speaker for a delay was Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio, who had taken a leading role in supporting the two-term limit in 2008. He did not explain why he changed his mind, but as a mayoral candidate in 2013, he will be seeking support from the legislators whose eligibility he sought to prolong.
The effect of this postponement is to confer a benefit on a small group of Councilmembers, some of whom voted in 2008 to extend their eligibility. Others, who voted No on the change, allegedly on principle, will also have the opportunity to seek a third term, and it is likely that most of them will avail themselves of that privilege. The extension to 2021 will give the freshmen, now in their first year on the Council, the right to serve twelve years before there will be an open seat..
The rationale behind this gift of time is that, since in 2009 the three-term limit was in effect, the candidates ran with the expectation that they would be entitled to seek three terms and the city is in good faith bound to honor their belief. Those members first elected in 2005 would require the gift of a third term to have them serve into 2017. However, the public will presumably by 2010 have voted three times (1993 and 1996 were the first two) for a two-term limit.
The theory that there is a duty to fulfill the expectations of the ambitious appears as harebrained to me as it may sound to you, but it was expressed by at least one Commissioner last night, and it was the rationalization of others. Try to think of another justification for prolonging the implementation of the decision of the voters for a period comparable to serious prison time.
The fact is that, even if the voters approve a two-term limit in November, the Commission has arrogated to itself the power to frustrate that decision for eleven years. The proposal was offered to allow the public to decide the effective date of the two-term limit, whether at once (2013), 2017 or 2021. This idea was ignored; how can the people be trusted to make a decision of such magnitude? Don't the mayoral appointees on the Commission know what is best for the masses?
The individual members of the Commission are, by and large, reasonably intelligent, not particularly politically sophisticated, and honorable New Yorkers. The chair is a distinguished public servant. How could all these bright people have gone so wrong? Look at Vietnam and numerous situations since then when our country has made decisions which turned out to be wrong. But those important issues had two sides and complicated facts. In this case, the facts are clear and the argument completely one-sided. I invite anyone to submit a column explaining why 2017 or 2021 is the appropriate time for a 2010 referendum to take effect. We'll publish it.
The bottom line here is that some people wanted to take care of some other people they know. And they were able to convince enough naive colleagues so that they could do it.
The remedy here is relatively simple: another referendum, with an effective date written into it so no Commission can substitute its wishes for the voters' decision by fiddling with implementation and postponing a simple reform for over a decade.
The unanswered question is Rule 17-C. Who will bell the cat? Who will step forward and take the initiative to see that the will of the people is implemented, whatever it may be. Now is the time to begin consideration of that question. It has been attributed to Edmund Burke in 1795. No one, however, really knows who said it first: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing."
To those of you who think, what difference does this make, two terms or three, you have a point. The issue, however, is not two or three terms. The issue is fairness; first the Mayor and Council circumventing the Charter in 2008 for their own benefit, and now the Commission trying to circumvent the referendum of 2010, whether they know it or not.
Americans, and New Yorkers are Americans, like to play fair, and don't like to be disregarded or manipulated. That is what underlies this controversy. It is the same nagging issue that sharply reduced the majority the competent mayor should have received after two successful terms. Our recommendation: respect the will of the people.
"Justice Delayed is Justice Denied". Britain's Prime Minister Gladstone said it in 1868 addressing Parliament as Queen Victoria's prime minister.
The City of New York should not provide golden parachutes. Not in dollars, not in years. Let the new elected officials take their places, and may they serve the public, not themselves.