Reinventing New York

EVEN to faraway observers with no stake in the outcome, watching New York City reinvent its form of government is a fascinating sight. No other city in the United States is more a microcosm of American pluralism, and thus none could better demonstrate how to tailor democratic generalities to the adamant peculiarities of a rainbow culture. In a way, it's like watching the Soviet Union, in the grip of perestroika, try to fashion representative political institutions that give legitimate expression to its culture, factions, and history.

Sure, the Soviet people, inexperienced in democracy (such as it is), are taking halting steps, while the New Yorkers are working within a mature and highly sophisticated democratic tradition. Yet in both cases, one is reminded that democracy - meaning people's participation in realizing the political aspirations of a specific populace - is not easily reduced to line-and-block diagrams. Nor can a model that has worked in one place merely be superimposed on another polity. To adapt a saying: Government is in the details.

The US Supreme Court sent New York's civic planners back to the drawing board in March, when it ruled that the composition of the city's Board of Estimate violates the Constitution's one-person, one-vote requirement. The board, which has vast power over the city's budget, contracts, and land use, has eight members, including the five borough presidents. Therein lay the problem: The boroughs have equal representation despite widely disparate populations (Staten Island, the smallest borough in terms of people, has less than one-sixth the population of Brooklyn, the biggest).

Rather than just rejigger the Board of Estimate, however, the Charter Revision Commission opted for the most sweeping changes in the city's government since the boroughs merged in 1898. Its goals, among other things, were to make city leaders more accountable and to increase the participation of blacks and Hispanics.

Under a plan produced by the revision commission last week, the Board of Estimate is gone, its powers redistributed among the mayor, an enlarged City Council (with more seats for minorities), and a revised City Planning Commission, and the borough presidents have been given more power over city spending in their areas. The commission will soon start a series of public hearings, with a view to having a final proposal on the November ballot.

Some critics complain that the planners have just replaced one Rube Goldberg contraption with another. But most of the participants in the process seem to believe that the proposals will improve city government while preserving important elements of the old structure.

An outsider can only be impressed with the hard work, goodwill, imagination, give-and-take, love for their city, and sensitivity to its unique patterns displayed by New York's reinventers. There are heart and head behind their flow charts.

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