2004 Cyrus R. Vance Tribute

Honoree: Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

The Mayor’s Remarks On Election Reform

Good morning, and thank you, Fern, for that introduction.

Members of the Vance family, and members and guests of the Fund for Modern Courts:  It’s a great honor to receive this Cyrus Vance Award, particularly on the 50th anniversary of the founding of this group, which is one of City’s most important civic organizations.

As a chair of the Fund for Modern Courts, along with all his other civic and government posts, Cyrus Vance served as an inspiration to many of you here, including another former chair of the Fund, the City’s Corporation Counsel, Michael Cardozo.

Cy Vance was, first of all, an outstanding lawyer.  He distinguished himself through public service and unimpeachable personal integrity.  And he had another very important characteristic that is all too rare:  He wasn’t too proud to learn from experience.

Those qualities-knowledge of the law, devotion to the civic good, integrity, and open-mindedness-are the qualities that we have looked for in the people we’ve appointed to the bench.

Let me say at the outset that most of the men and women who serve as judges in this City deserve to be there.  But “most” isn’t good enough.

New Yorkers deserve nothing less than knowing that every single judge has been awarded the awesome responsibility of sitting on the bench based on merit, not political connections.

Allegations of corruption, of cronyism, of political deals – such as those that have been in the news far too much lately – corrode respect for the law.  That’s why we can’t afford to tolerate even the appearance of impropriety from the bench.

Mayor Koch established the practice of appointing only judges found to be “well qualified” by an independent screening committee.  It is a legacy that Mayor Koch rightly takes pride in – and that I have been committed to since Day One.

Appointing the very best people also means finding candidates who reflect the City’s diversity.  I am proud to say that more than one-half of all judges I have appointed are women, and more than one-third are minorities.

The key to our success is the hard work and integrity of those who serve on the Mayor’s Judiciary Committee.

I think it would be appropriate to ask all the members and staff of the Committee who are here to stand.   All of you are the biggest reason why I am receiving this award.  Thank you.

Unfortunately, the Mayor only appoints Criminal and Family Court judges, not Civil and Supreme Court judges.  While I am a great believer in electoral democracy, the process of filling positions on the Civil and Supreme courts is nothing less than a sham.

In last week’s balloting for judges, there wasn’t a single real contest in this City.  Not one.  That includes “races” – and I use that term loosely – in which the victorious candidates had been found “not qualified” by various local bar associations.

But virtually no one knew that bit of information, nor anything else about these candidates.  It’s no wonder that about 30% of New Yorkers who voted for President last week saw no reason to vote for even one judge.  No one wants to cast a vote without information, especially when it could help elect corrupt or unqualified judges.

Thirty years ago, Cy Vance, with the support of the Committee for Modern Courts, led the successful battle to persuade Governor Carey, the New York Legislature, and ultimately the people, to enact a constitutional amendment providing for the merit appointment of judges to our highest court. The case can be made that merit appointment to the Supreme and Civil Courts is even more important – because it’s harder for voters to learn anything about candidates for the trial court.

We must continue Cy’s effort to convince Albany of the wisdom of merit selection.  But in the meantime, interim measures can and should be taken.

Last year, in testimony to the Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections, I urged the state’s political parties to appoint screening panels modeled on the Mayor’s Judiciary Committee, with a majority of the members appointed by civic leaders, law school deans, and bar associations.

John Feerick was Chair of that Commission and a former Chair of this organization.  Cy Vance was a mentor to John, and I’d like to thank John for the enormous contributions he has made to the civic life of our City.

Right now, John is serving on two special master panels: one will decide the Campaign for Fiscal Equity litigation, and the other is helping the City and Legal Aid put an end to the years of court orders and litigation that have driven the City’s Homeless policy.

It’s probably not what John had in mind when he retired as Dean of Fordham Law School, but it’s exactly what you would expect from someone mentored and inspired by Cy Vance.

As John well knows, when it comes to strengthening public confidence in government, it’s not just in the judicial arena where we need to do better.

I’d like to talk about three other key areas where improvements are badly needed and long overdue: ballot access reform, pay-to-play reform, and reform of the Board of Elections.

If we want the best people to run for office, we need simpler and easier rules for getting on the ballot.

Right now, it is too easy for party bosses and their lawyers to knock challengers off the ballot for minor technicalities.  It’s hard enough to beat an incumbent without having to spend all your time and money defending your petitions in court.

The endless legal challenges that define elections in New York are part of the reason why running for office is so expensive here – and why many good people decide not to run.

Let’s end the game of “gotcha” where lawyers comb petitions to find some technical violation of the hopelessly complex election law requirements, which some courts have found to be unconstitutional.

Let’s make it easier to get on the ballot by eliminating those technical requirements, reducing the number of signatures required, and allowing all registered voters – not just those that belong to a political party – to sign petitions.

One of the reasons I supported nonpartisan elections was that it offered an opportunity to move toward these goals without waiting for action from Albany.  But I accepted the voters’ decision.

However, in a 1998 referendum, the voters passed an amendment to the City Charter requiring the Campaign Finance Board to adopt rules regulating or prohibiting campaign contributions from those who do business with the City.

The rules were to apply to candidates who join the City’s matching funds program.  But here we are six years later, and no rules have been adopted.

If you’re a telecommunications executive looking for friendly contract terms…or a real estate developer going through the City Council’s Land Use Review Process…or a registered lobbyist trying to get certain terms included in legislation…or a consultant to a private equity firm competing to invest some of the City’s pension funds…You may be invited – or feel compelled – to make campaign contributions.

This is generally called “pay-to-play.”  It may not fit the legal definition of bribery or extortion, but it can corrupt government decisions, and it diminishes public confidence in government.

Because the 1998 Charter amendment has been ignored, pay-to-play contributions continue to be made.  Worse – and I find this hard to believe – they continue to be subsidized with taxpayer money!

For every $250 contribution from lobbyists and those who do business with the city, the taxpayers kick in $1,000.  This is an unintended consequence of the City’s matching funds program, which was designed to limit the power of special interests, not magnify it.

Along with most voters, I believe contributions like these should be banned or severely restricted.  And certainly they should not be subsidized by taxpayers.

Our Administration has been urging the Campaign Finance Board to implement the 1998 amendment.  But nothing has happened.

And since the Board has failed to act, we have repeatedly asked the City Council to enact legislation to fulfill this Charter mandate. Unfortunately, the Council and the Board see only bureaucratic and political obstacles, and they’ve been busy pursuing other agendas.

But I will not let them forget the voters who passed this mandate six years ago, and I will not sign another campaign finance bill unless it includes provisions that fulfill it.

Even New Jersey – New Jersey! – has adopted pay-to-play reform.  About a month ago, Governor McGreevy signed an executive order restricting contributions from government contractors.

And last week, soon-to-be New Jersey Governor Codey announced that he’ll take things a step further, by closing a loophole in the SEC’s rule that prohibits bond underwriters from making campaign contributions to elected officials who hire firms to handle bond sales.

New York City likes to consider itself a national leader in campaign finance reform.  But on the most basic criteria – restricting the influence of special interests – we have fallen behind many other jurisdictions, including New Jersey.

Finally, we also need reform at the Board of Elections.  Most importantly, we need modern voting machines that make voting easier, quicker, and more secure.

In 1952, 3.5 million New Yorkers cast ballots in the presidential election.  Last week , 2.2 million New Yorkers voted – one-third fewer.  So why did we have so many problems?

Two reasons: First, the voting machines we use are more than 40-years old – and they are based on a patent by Thomas Edison that is almost 140 years old!

Most of us don’t drive cars built during Mayor Wagner’s Administration – unless you live in Havana – so why are we using voting machines from that era?  They are technological fossils, and they belong in the New York Historical Society, not polling stations.

The federal government’s Help America Vote Act – called HAVA – will pay for the State to modernize our voting equipment…train election officials and poll workers…and enhance voter education.

Most states qualified for HAVA money in time for the 2004 elections, and many bought new machines.  But here in New York, we are still waiting for Albany to finalize a plan that will allow the State to qualify for more than $200 million in federal funding.

It’s already too late to have a new system up and running by 2005, and if the State Legislature does not come to an agreement soon, even 2006 will be difficult.  As last week’s elections showed, we can’t afford any more delays.

However, HAVA money alone will not solve the Board’s institutional problems.  Under John Ravitz’s leadership, the Board has begun to try to professionalize its operations, and I commend him for the improvements that he’s trying to make.

But John is severely hamstrung by the Board’s structure, established by State law, which allows party leaders to dictate hiring decisions based on party connections – or family connections – not merit.  This makes it very hard to fire incompetent workers, or to recruit qualified ones.  That’s a recipe for ineptitude.

The structure of the Board, like our method of selecting judges, is a remnant of the days when Tammany Hall ruled New York.  Together, the Board and the courts are the City’s last bastions of political patronage…and it shows.

While civil service reforms have bypassed the Board, other states have adopted nonpartisan boards with professional staffs.  If we expect our Board to perform reliable, high-quality customer service, we need the same.

As part of its consideration of HAVA, the State Legislature should examine ways to re-structure the Board so that it can select people based on merit, just like the system of selecting judges that I discussed.

Although the City does not have authority over the Board, John has agreed to work with our Administration to improve its operations.

There is no reason why the Board cannot maintain its independence while also taking advantage of the City’s technological infrastructure, particularly 311.

Voters are calling 311 anyway.  On election day, more than 23,000 New Yorkers called 311 for information or to complain.  Setting up a separate call center for the Board doesn’t make any sense from a customer service viewpoint, nor does it make any financial sense.

In 2001, following  the Florida election fiasco, Mayor Giuliani appointed a task force to make recommendations for changes to the Board’s operations and management.

Some important improvements resulted, including contingency plans for emergencies and expedited counting of paper ballots. But, as we saw last week, many more changes are needed.

So in the next few weeks, I will be announcing a new task force to build on the work of the previous initiative.   We need to find more ways to improve the Board’s operations, increase its productivity, and hold it publicly accountable for its performance.

That’s the charge I’ll give to the new task force.  I have asked Michael Cardozo to lead it – and who better than someone inspired by Cy Vance?

The four reforms I’ve discussed today – judicial reform, ballot access reform, pay-to-play reform, and election administration reform – are some of the most important good-government issues facing our City.  They have real consequences for all New Yorkers, including candidates and voters.

I want to thank everyone here for working to improve the integrity of government.  We have no better role model than Cy Vance.  It is an honor to receive an award named for someone who left such an indelible mark on this City, and on so many of our finest civic leaders.  Thank you for this honor, and have a great day.

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