This summary highlights basic features of NYC charter amendments collaboratively drafted by lowercase d and currently being circulated. A comprehensive understanding of the proposalsŐ contents can be had by reading their full texts. The proposed reforms have been split into two separate charter amendments, largely because the city will likely attempt to reject the petitions and challenge their legality, as it has all citizen charter amendments, with varying success. By reducing each portionŐs liability in court, we hope to improve its chances of being placed on the ballot. This also gives voters more control in allocating their support, both during petitioning and at the polls.
The Right of Initiative NYC charter amendment provides for an expanded ability of citizen ballot measures for local laws, beyond the existing right to propose charter amendments. It is complicated somewhat by having to fit into the framework provided by the charter, which we can amend directly, and state law, which we canŐt, and by having to work well with, yet function independently from, the CitizensŐ Forum amendment. Essentially it allows
● Ballot placement of proposed local laws by citizens. A petition signed by at least twice the number of voters required under the charter for a citywide candidate can let the electorate decide at the next general election whether or not to enact a proposal. Currently that would mean at least 7,500 voters, though it is standard to submit twice as many as needed.
● Transparency and oversight. The public advocate is charged with administering the process to ensure its fair implementation.
Some elements of the right of initiative amendment are partially motivated by the potential adoption of the CitizensŐ Forum. These include:
● Ballot cap. Given electronic signatures will likely be relatively easier to gather, but the minimum number of signatures has to be the same for paper and electronic petitions, the amendment limits the number of qualifying measures appearing on the ballot at any election under this amendment to the seven having filed the most signatures on the last day to do so.
● Running totals. Groups circulating paper petitions must report how many signatures they have gathered whenever that number increases by more than a thousand, so that publicly available electronic petitions wonŐt be at an informational disadvantage in the context of the above ballot cap.
Additionally, the right of initiative amendment provides for:
● Fiscal responsibility. All measures appearing on the ballot include a fiscal impact statement by the independent budget office. Any proposal requiring either a city expenditure or a loss of revenue, is required to include a plan to make up its cost, and cannot take effect until after the next city budget has been adopted, giving ample time for the Council to make any changes it sees fit. Additionally any measure that attempts to limit the Council and mayorŐs abilities to execute their fiduciary responsibilities would likely be thrown out under state law.
It does NOT:
● Limit City Council. The Council has the power to amend or repeal laws adopted by the people (unless state law or the city charter specifically makes the legislation subject to mandatory referendum). As well as potentially using the Citizens' Forum to improve legislation whatever its source, the Council can propose and pass an alternative to a citizen proposal before its ballot placement, potentially triggering its withdrawal. By opening another path to enactment for local laws, this amendment empowers everyone, including council members, with the sole exception of the speaker of the Council, who currently holds immense power to control the Council and block legislation, power that the voters did not directly confer.
The CitizensŐ Forum charter amendment begins to bring the traditional initiative process into the 21st century and facilitates more collaboration between legislators and the public. Some aspects of the lawmaking process, including initiatives, that are ripe for participatory improvement include:
● Drafting. Both the high cost of participation and the processŐ structure prevent the typical voter in a traditional initiative jurisdiction from meaningfully taking part in the creation or refinement of citizen legislation. By leveraging modern collaboration tools we can allow anyone to propose an idea or contribute to its improvement.
● Ballot Access. On the street petitioning for ballot placement rarely results in real consideration of a proposal by petition signers, and can pose a barrier to all but the most well-financed and organized efforts. Electronic signatures, if thoughtfully implemented, can permit ballot placement to be based on the perceived quality of a proposal instead of the resources behind it.
● Deliberation. Having an additional well-structured and evolving information resource that facilitates the transparent assembly and vetting of arguments for and against a proposal by all can mitigate the influence of money in the public conversation over ballot measures and improve the quality of debate. By providing a central and truly relevant public deliberation space, the Citizens' Forum can also overcome the balkanization and self-validating behavior that both the internet and political activism otherwise encourage, forcing people to consider and civilly engage with opposing perspectives.
Among the specifics defining the CitizensŐ Forum:
● Complete transparency of the forumŐs hardware and software. Though there would be plenty of opportunity for the public electronic signatures on a forum petition to be vetted, the public should be completely confident in the security of the process. Requiring complete transparency has the added benefit of encouraging the use of nonproprietary free and open source software, likely lowering the cost of implementation here and elsewhere.
● Anonymity is exception, not rule. In general all user actions affecting forum content have the userŐs identity attached to them. A user may opt to make certain actions, particularly those associated with their speech, anonymously, in which case the action will be screened by another user for compliance with forum rules before being posted.
● Emphasis on collaborative deliberation. The arguments for and against proposals are refined in separate wiki-like interfaces open to all users.
● Electronic signatures equivalent to petition signatures. Ballot access becomes less dependent on money and organizing clout. The Right of Initiative amendmentŐs ballot cap prevents an overwhelming number of measures qualifying.
● Broader participation. Residents who are not registered to vote are nonetheless able to partake in all aspects of the forum, including deliberation, drafting, and moderation. Only signing to place a measure on the ballot or acting as a proposalŐs primary drafter are limited to qualified electors.
● Directly elected official accountable for implementation. The cityŐs public advocate is given primary responsibility for most government duties related to the CitizensŐ Forum, but is obliged to enact any related rules via procedures standard for city agencies.
● Preparation time. To allow sufficient time for software development, outreach, rulemaking, etc., if adopted in November 2014, the citizensŐ forum wouldnŐt be mandated to become operational until the 2017 election year, allowing over two years to get ready.
● Equalizing measures. Attempts to begin a forum session or to access the forum via a link from outside the forum are rerouted to the front page. Full search and robust sorting functionality, random feeds, and search results including alternative measures are among the requirements to ensure proposals are not given artificial precedence.
It does NOT:
● Provide for electronic voting in elections. Measures are voted on at the polls using the method provided by state law. The electronic signatures on the Citizens' Forum to place a measure on the ballot, like traditional petitions, are public and must be filed months in advance, effectively preventing undetected fraud.