Unchartered Territory

First thing: there is an election this year, and a reason to go to the polls November 2. It’s that whole charter business. Stay with me here. I’ll try to keep this brisk.

You know the charter. It’s the city’s constitution, except the Constitution is a 5,000-word statement of principles whereas the charter is a 500-page (or so) iteration of statutes (no, smart guy, I’ve never read it). Every decade or two, when the odor of reform grows rich in the municipal air, a mayor appoints a commission to concretize a few reforms, and the commission’s ideas go before the people. There are hearings – and hearings, and hearings – and editorials and civic debates; general high-mindedness is afoot. Politics of course infects the process, but broadly speaking, charter change, like the quadrennial election of a president, is one of those pageants that allow us to sit back and speak contentedly of democratic splendor.

That’s how it was in the late eighties, when court rulings forced the city fathers to change our system of municipal government, and a charter commission appointed by Mayor Koch spent endless hours and months rewriting the laws and taking testimony from any (and I do mean any) interested party.

Well, that’s not how it is now.

As you probably know, Mayor Giuliani appointed this commission when he realized that if he won the Senate race and thus left the mayoralty a year early, the ghastly Mark Green would succeed him as mayor. The commission was to change the charter (which currently says: mayor vacates, public advocate takes over) to call for a special election for a new mayor. There are good reasons why making such a change might make sense (or why there should be no public advocate to begin with). But not under these circumstances. A mayor can’t decide he wants to change the law just because he happens to loathe the fellow who might take his job if he leaves it. Even the Post called the mayor’s proposal a “bill of attainder” (I told you: high-mindedness), and though it isn’t precisely that, it is very clearly a fairly hefty use of public time and money for the sole purpose of sticking a shiv in one man’s back.

In the end, Giuliani uncharacteristically backed off, as even his closest advisers told him he was looking foolish. Now, under the modified (and current) proposal, the special-election thing is still in the mix, but it wouldn’t take effect until after the next regular municipal election. Meanwhile, the commission, which was chaired by former deputy mayor Randy Mastro, threw in proposals like making the schools gun-free zones, so that when people show up to vote, they’ll vote yes, because who wants the schools to be gun-happy zones? So what you’ll see, down in the right-hand corner of your ballot, is one 280-word question that starts with the gun-free-zone bit and lopes through the commission’s thirteen other proposals, ranging from the beside-the-point (nice-sounding agency reshuffling) to the horrendous (requiring a two-thirds majority of the City Council to raise some types of taxes, which would only result in the council’s raising instead those other taxes that don’t need a two-thirds majority – chiefly, property taxes).

These ridiculous proposals sprang from a ridiculous process. The commission’s first public meeting, which lasted fifteen minutes, resulted in its approving an itinerary of its future meetings. The list had dates, but no times or places. When the venues were finally set, recalls Gene Russianoff of New York Public Interest Research Group, they were either inconvenient (in the Bronx, half a mile from the nearest subway stop; in Staten Island, in a school inaccessible by public transportation) or in halls that were too small (Cabrini Medical Center’s sixteenth-floor cafeteria; a large number of attendees were trapped in the lobby and never made it up).

So that’s what the mayor did. Yet the more interesting piece of theater played out among the Democrats. After all, there are Democrats around town who, wanting to be mayor themselves, aren’t too keen to see Green stroll untested into Gracie Mansion and get what amounts to several months’ incumbency before the 2001 election. Of course, they had to pay their respects to good government, and they couldn’t be caught openly agreeing with Giuliani. So what did they do?

Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer didn’t play games, coming out against the mayor pretty much from the start. Council Speaker Peter Vallone tried to find an angle for a while. One City Hall source says Vallone would come into the mayor’s offices “pushing like a dog, how he was gonna raise $200,000 for us” to help pay for mailings to voters and so forth. Vallone’s spokesman denies this, and Vallone publicly has come out against the proposals.

That leaves Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Hevesi, his political consultant Hank Morris told me last week, “is voting against” the proposal. Still, everyone who pays attention to this stuff believes Hevesi and Morris and Jack Chartier, the comptroller’s political operative, have secretly been in cahoots with the mayor to screw Green.

“With the mayoral-succession matter put off, the question now is whether Giuliani, who seems to have lost all interest in his commission’s proposals, will do anything to see that they pass.”

A little background. In his run for comptroller in the last municipal elections, Hevesi got the endorsement of Ray Harding’s Liberal Party. Most people took that as a clear signal that Hevesi would be Harding’s choice – and, by extension, Giuliani’s choice, since Harding would never have endorsed Hevesi without clearing it with Rudy – for mayor in 2001. So it’s not been difficult for insiders to envision Hevesi and Harding working in concert against Green.

In fact, one knowledgeable source says that even now, with the mayoral-succession matter put off, Hevesi’s people and Harding are scheming to put a referendum on next November’s ballot that would reassert Giuliani’s original position – that is, calling for a special election in case of a mayoral vacancy, to take effect immediately. Harding would not comment. Morris would not rule it out. “I haven’t thought about it,” he says. “Doesn’t mean I won’t. Doesn’t mean I will.” Note, please, the absence of outright denials.

The question now is whether Giuliani, who seems to have lost all interest in his commission’s proposals, will do anything to see that they pass. Maybe we’ll see in the next week one of those “nonpolitical” public-service TV campaigns, paid for by the taxpayers, for which the mayor is justly famous (“Joe Torre says: Vote yes on charter!”). I won’t suggest changes to the Yankees’ lineup card if Joe will stay out of the charter fight. Just vote no.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Unchartered Territory