Chat With The Term Limit Attorney Of Record
Over the past three years,
this column has probably spent a disproportionate amount of time on the
subject of City Council term limits.
We never advocated in favor
of them – although as time goes by, the concept becomes more and more
appealing. We merely stood up – often in the face of unbelievable odds
– and shouted at the top of our lungs, if the people passed term limits
by referendum, they can only be changed by referendum.
In 1993 – funded and
championed by Ron Lauder – the people of this City overwhelmingly
approved, by referendum, term limits for the Mayor, Comptroller, Public
Advocate, Beeps and City Council. An attempt by the Council to lengthen
their terms was defeated in a 1996 referendum.
Ravi Batra, who is
the term limits case through the court system, explained to
Trib Publisher Mike Schenkler
that the City Council’s
term limit change is a
structural change in government and requires
a referendum – a vote
of the people.
Photo by Tamara Hartman
The people had spoken –
Then in 2001 as the Council
faced the reality of term limits — 38 members were to be forced out of
office — they attempted, without going back to the people, to repeal the
term limit law. We cried foul. We led the charge. We called them every
name in the book. We even put the faces of the seven Queens members
pushing the cause on a “Wanted For Crimes Against the People” poster
on the front page of our paper. We felt strongly — very strongly — if
the people passed the law to limit Council terms, the Council could not
change it without going back to the people.
After months of Council
maneuvering, Mayoral candidate and then-Speaker Peter Vallone pulled the
plug on the action and term limits stood.
They came, they went and as
we’ve said before, the doomsday scenarios didn’t occur. The sky
didn’t fall. A bright new Council was elected — better than the
previous one — and the City was in good hands.
The new Council members
elected one of the eight non-term- limited holdovers – Giff Miller –
to be its new Speaker. Miller was up to the task in every way. He has
proven to be a bright, amiable, hardworking shrewd politician who has led
the Council through these very difficult times.
He also led the Council to
slightly change or “tweak” the term limit law so that he and five of
his remaining senior colleagues could avoid term limits for two additional
years. He did it skillfully, manipulating just about every player and
editorial page throughout the City. And even though we consider Giff a
friend and one who has served the City well, the facts of term limits
haven’t changed. The people passed them and to change them, the Council
must go back to the people.
We stood almost alone in the
City, shouting our view that the Miller term-limit tweak was wrong.
One who agreed with us –
then Councilman, now State Senator, Brooklyn’s Marty Golden – along
with two others, brought suit challenging the tweak by Miller and the
Council. They secured the
services of attorneys Randy Mastro –
Deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani – and Ravi Batra, law partner of
Clarence Norman the Brooklyn Democratic County Leader.
This paper in its coverage
of the term limit issue interviewed Mastro a number of times. Batra had
never hooked up with our reporters.
We had expressed our
viewpoint that the Council could not or should not change the law passed
by the people on a moral and ethical level. Mastro and Batra were taking
it through the courts on a legal level.
Last month they won in
Brooklyn Supreme when judge Gerard Rosenberg threw out the Council’s
term limit tweak.
Up to this point, you’ve
read it here before — and I’ve told the story in writing and at
speaking engagements in various ways and
in columns many times before.
Then late last week, I ran
into Ravi Batra, one of the two attorneys fighting the fight. With all my
research into the subject, I never made the connection: Ravi Batra was a
friend from 25 years ago. Ravi, presently embroiled in the upheaval
surrounding the selection and behavior of judges in Brooklyn, embraced me
as we quickly reviewed the past and our Council term limit credentials.
I explained why I didn’t
connect the Ravi of old from Queens to the well-known Brooklyn trial
“Ravi, I assumed it was a
common name. Isn’t there an author Ravi Batra?”
“The blankety - blank
stole my name,” Batra retorted.
And although we were at a
well-attended political event, the two of us took a half hour or so to
review, talk term limits and agree that he’d be available to walk me
through the rest of the legal adventure as the term limits tweak winds its
way through the courts.
I asked Ravi what got him
and co-counsel Randy Mastro involved in the case. Who were the real
clients footing the bill?
“We are,” Ravi
explained. “Randy must be out of pocket a quarter of a million dollars
and it’s cost me around $150,000. It’s a matter of public policy.
It’s not a matter of politics. I like and support Giff Miller.”
But to Batra, the law is the
law and it’s black and white in this case. The Council tried to change
the very structure of government by redefining a term. Only the people, by
referendum, can do that.
Before parting, I asked him
for a simple explanation for my readers as to why he won in Brooklyn
Supreme and he is so certain that he will prevail all the way to the State
Court of Appeals — the final arbiter on this one.
Batra summed it up simply
assuring us that the Appellate Division in Brooklyn would uphold the
Supreme Court decision this week and by June, the Court of Appeals will
It’s simple, he said.
Picture a house. There are two types of walls: load-bearing, supporting
walls and non-supporting walls. You rent a house and you move those
interior walls around all you want. The Council can do that.
However, you move a
load-bearing wall and that house can come tumbling down. The City Charter
says that if you want to change a structural part of government, you need
a referendum – the people’s approval. You can’t move a load-bearing
wall of government without the vote of the people.
The Council changed the
definition of a term in office, Batra explained, a basic part of the
governmental structure. It required a referendum. His argument is simple,
precise and was accepted by the State Supreme Court.
He described the City
Corporation Counsel and City Council’s private attorney (hired with
public funds) as unable to deal with the judges’ questions on this
Now I’m not quoting Batra,
we had food or drink in our hands as we stood in a noisy room. I was not
taking notes. But his words rang true.
They rang true not because I
believed in them. They rang true because deep down in this political
junkie’s heart, I believe that the system finds ways to protect the
small guy – the people.
And it mades a lot of sense
for the people to control the load-bearing walls so that the house of
government doesn’t come tumbling down around them.
Game’s Latest Juice
Longtime Queens political
operative Corey Bearak, who has spent the past handful of years as a hired
gun (he had some real government title) for the office of the Bronx Beep
has been in search of a new gunslinger. The guy who used to play Mr.
Warmth for Sheldon Leffler has been heard to mimic Ogden Nash’s, “The
Bronx, No Thonx!”
Corey has settled into a
position with Queens Councilman Jim Gennaro. Gennaro – whose district
includes Orthodox Kew Gardens Hills – is in need of building and
maintaining support in the Jewish community, which represents the largest
voting block in his district.
Gennaro is being challenged
by two Jewish candidates: longtime activist Florence Fischer and former
Council opponent David Reich. With two in the race, Gennaro has an easy
victory. Should one drop out, hardworking Gennaro is still the clear
Bearak – a knowledgeable
political operative who is a longtime activist with Queens Jewish
organizations – provides Gennaro with a little insurance and was in need
of a job.
We’d expect this strange
marriage of convenience to last until a little after Election Day.
One of the former
Council-members who is said to be carefully watching the term limits case
is octogenarian Julia Harrison. Harrison, who had been in elected office
for decades until term limited at the end of 2001, has had a rollercoaster-like
Several misspeaks, including
one during an interview with the New York Times, got the former
trade unionist labeled as anti-Asian in her very Asian district. Julia
fought the racist label, but did not fare well in an attempt to unseat
longtime rival State Senator Toby Stavisky.
Now, Harrison is said to
have her sights set on another foe, Councilman John Liu.
Should the lower court’s
ruling throwing out the term limits tweak be upheld, Harrison would be
eligible to run for her old seat which is now held by Liu.
The district is more Asian
than before and Liu will be well-funded. But Harrison – even at her age
– is a tireless campaigner with the tenacity of a pit bull.
Although the incumbent Liu
would be the clear frontrunner, don’t count the controversial Harrison
Other former Councilmembers
said to be taking a look at their political options include: Morty Povman
– who could present a real serious challenge to Gennaro – and Tom
White – seemingly the only person who could unseat the lunatic of the
Council, Allan Jennings.
At A Freezing Point;
Mayor Must Warm Our Hearts
Today’s news tells of Mayor Bloomberg’s apparent
unpopularity, as documented by the Quinnipiac poll. (The Q-word, by the
way, is a small river in Connecticut that flows into Long Island Sound
near New Haven. A university named for the river owns the poll, which is
directed by Maurice Carroll).
The immediate cause of this dip (or meltdown, depending on
your point of view) is the package of tax increases, rent increases and
fare increases, all recently imposed and prospective. Then people mention
the Mayor’s great wealth, his personality (genial in public, aggressive
in private), his inability to inspire, his lack of colorful
eccentricities, his diffident speaking style, his courtesy to the Governor
(apparently not reciprocated financially), his alleged insensitivity to
the plight of the ordinary people in general and the poor in particular,
his distaste for indoor smokers, his initial secrecy about his weekend
One problem is that the Mayor is trying to take a left-center
course on public issues. As a result, he satisfies neither the far
left nor the near or far right.
The City Council is far more radical than the Mayor.
They repeatedly override his veto of bills which would make
it even more difficult to do business in New York. But on the major policy
issue, the size of government, Bloomberg has tilted to the left.
He sought, and received, billions of dollars in tax
increases. While the impact on his own finances is insignificant, the
quadruple whammy of sales taxes, property taxes, income taxes and water
rate increases hurts people who are less well off. Their resentment of his
wealth is aggravated by their perception of his indifference to their
Another irritant is the Mayor’s repeated insistence that
there is hardly any waste in City government.
Almost every adult and many wise children know – from
personal experience and common knowledge – that there is substantial
waste of money, theft of time, and petty bribery in some agencies that are
part of a $44 billion budget. One thing I worried about at Parks was our
vulnerability to such accusations, because of our far-flung work sites and
the problem of supervisors being in the same union as their employees.
When the Mayor denies there is waste and corruption, he flies
in the face of reality, and this detracts from his credibility on many
other issues on which he is right.
The insularity of the administration has been mentioned, but
the truth is that they are all that way.
Every mayor I know has felt himself hounded by enemies and
betrayed by leakers. Actually, the Bloomberg team is quite honorable,
diligent and cohesive, but, with the exception of the popular and
effective Police Commissioner, they have not yet emerged as public
personalities. That means, in part, that there is only one man for the
public to blame when anything goes wrong. And, in a city of eight million,
some things inevitably go wrong.
I wrote a month ago that the Mayor needs a Karl Rove.
However, he will never hire one.
The President of the United States is aware of his
limitations. The Mayor does not appear to be.
Nobody is brilliant at everything. That is why it is valuable
to take counsel from people whose gifts may complement yours. But the
Mayor believes, proudly and honestly, that what he is doing is right.
His election was an enormous personal achievement, assisted
by Mayors Giuliani and Koch, the errors of his opponent, and the tragedy
of 9/11. Without those events and endorsements, the money he spent
would not have elected him. His victory was a pleasant surprise.
Governing is even harder than getting elected.
In an election, someone must win; you just have to be more
popular, or less unpopular, than your opponent. It is far more challenging
to bring prosperity and security to a city coping with modest economic
decline, fear of terrorism, asthma, more emotional disorder than we care
to admit, a rising tax burden, competition from other localities,
indifferent sports teams (except for the Yankees), enormous traffic
congestion, etc. To deal with these ills while keeping up your poll
numbers appears almost impossible, unless one is unusually charming.
The City is fortunate to have Michael Bloomberg as mayor. He
is honest, decent and intelligent (89 percent say that). He has appointed
able Commissioners. He makes decisions on the merits as he sees them, with
little regard for political considerations, and that virtue has impaired
his popularity. His prospective opponents are unlikely to match his
ability, integrity and sense of fairness. But they may well match
his number of votes.
On May 1, his term was one-third over. We are now in
the second trimester (or the fourth inning). It is time for the Mayor to
think strategy as well as substance. It is not a crime for a lion (or even
a mouse) to act like a fox.
Henry Stern was NYC Parks Commissioner for fifteen years and
a Councilmember for nine. He is founder and director of NYCivic, a good
government group. He can be reached at: starquest.nycivic.org
by Dom Nunziato
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@queenspress.com