Anger, Passion…and the City Charter?

I am old enough to have nodded off through several revisions of this town’s municipal user’s manual, commonly called the City Charter. Therefore, let this old City Charter revision hand assure you that those scolds who would insist that we journalist types concern ourselves more in the prosaic business of governing have never sat through a City Charter Revision Commission hearing. Indeed, having once again written the words “City Charter Revision Commission,” my eyelids grow heavy, my fingers have become lethargic, my mind wanders, I grow weary, so very wearyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.

Sorry, friends. I seem to have drifted off. Where were we? Ah, yes … that, er, business about, um, making changes to the, er, document containing various provisions that together make up the city’s basic set of laws. (What’s that, you say? You suddenly feel sleepy? That long, carefully worded sentence about the city’s basic set of laws has exhausted you? Wake up, stouthearted reader! At least your eyes were spared another mention of the City Charterrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Sorry. I did it again. Won’t happen anymore. I promise.

What is remarkable about the current attempt to revise the Double C (stay with me, dear reader, and I’ll stay with you) is the passion it has aroused among certain sections of the public. At meetings called to discuss, among other things, proposed changes in the rules governing land use, emissaries from City Hall have found themselves confronted with the snarling face of popular outrage. Rather than an eyelid-dropping discussion of subclauses, these hearings have taken on the look and sound of question time in the House of Commons-without the Churchillian eloquence. Common citizens flaunt their contempt of the Mayor’s commissioners; spokesmen for obscure neighborhood causes demand that the assembled auditors resign in order to save themselves from further reproach.

This apparently has come as something of a surprise to the distinguished Double C commissioners, some of whom-Mayoral First Friend Peter Powers and former Corporation Counsel Paul Crotty-deserve better than to sit through shouted speculations about the alleged circumstances of their birth. Mr. Peters and Mr. Crotty have ably served this municipality at some sacrifice to their financial well-being. No doubt they took this assignment with the best of intentions-after all, a chance to restructure the Double C comes about only once every seven or eight years-but now they find themselves portrayed as mere mayoral lackeys deserving of nothing more than a public browbeating.

How to account for this anger over a subject as obscure, earnest and deadly dull as a revision of the Double C? There are three possible explanations:

First, that members of the city’s self-proclaimed activist community are so wide-eyed that not even the dreaded Double C can dim their sensibilities, slow their pulses and make weighty their eyelids. Based on past experience with scores of self-proclaimed activists, I can attest to the width of their gaze, particularly when in discussion of a favorite topic, e.g., that the city would be much more virtuous if politicians did not practice politics and developers did not develop. I have heard it said, however, that even these sleepless souls have, on occasion, had a hard time remaining wide-eyed when discussing the inner workings of the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Even they do not generally foam at the mouth during the city’s periodic attempts to revise the Double C. The answer must be found elsewhere.

Therefore, Explanation No. 2: Traffickers in various pharmaceutical products (and not the sort associated with a leading Republican politician in Manhattan) have been slipping speed into the organically grown vegetables consumed by aforementioned civic do-gooders. This explanation, while filled with delightful possibilities-what would become of a prominent civic do-gooder who was secretly feeding on non-organically grown vegetables and therefore fell asleep while his/her colleagues were shouting insults at Mr. Crotty?-is unlikely. Alas, there is not a pharmaceutical merchant living who would be able to find the organic vegetable stands of our various civic activists.

And so, Explanation No. 3: The mixing of obscure governmental procedures with the sport formerly known as the National Pastime (that having been succeeded by the sport known as Celebrity Worship) has turned revision of the Double C into an issue everybody can understand. Since it is generally believed that City Hall’s enthusiasm for revisions to the you-know-what is fueled not by an eagerness for good government but a desire to keep the West Side safe for the New York Yankees, all sorts of upper-deck fans believe (rightly) that they know what’s going on here. City Charter revision (see, we’ve suddenly perked up) means that Speaker Peter Vallone won’t get his stadium referendum on the ballot in November.

And so the likes of Mr. Powers and Mr. Crotty are dispatched hither and yon to collect evidence about land use procedures and return suffering from brickbat whiplash. The public knows that this business has little to do with land use except as it affects the use of a plot of land on the West Side.

Moral of the day: Never do anything that makes City Charter revision seem exciting.

Anger, Passion…and the City Charter?