The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the structure of the Board of Estimate, New York City’s unique central governing body, is unconstitutional.
In deciding that the board’s voting procedures violate the “one person one vote” provisions of the equal protection clause of the Constitution, the court set the stage for a major governmental overhaul in the nation’s largest city.
“It is clear we will have to make major changes,” said Peter L. Zimroth, New York’s corporation counsel. ". . . It will be a major governmental challenge.”
For the time being, it is expected the 88-year-old Board of Estimate will operate as usual while a Charter Revision Commission proposes alternatives either to be added to the ballot in this year’s hotly contested mayoral election or in a special election.
The eight-member Board of Estimate has far more influence than the 35-member City Council. The board is made up of the mayor, the city comptroller and City Council president, who have two votes, and all five borough presidents, who have one vote each.
Among its key duties, the board approves contracts, determines the use of land, grants franchises and takes part in a limited way in the budget-making process.
Touch Residents’ Lives
Its powers widely touch the lives of New York’s 7 million residents in such matters as deciding whether to lease a city building as a homeless shelter, establishing a drug counseling center in a neighborhood or voting whether a block in Manhattan is suitable for a high rise apartment house.
The case was brought by a group of voters in Brooklyn, the borough with the largest population in New York, who challenged the doctrine that other boroughs with smaller populations should have equal representation on the board.
“The highest court in the land has spoken,” said Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden. “Now, we all must work together to develop a system of weighted voting for the Board of Estimate which better protects the rights of all our people.”
“The charter commission now has to move full speed ahead,” said Mayor Edward I. Koch after being informed of the court’s decision.
Municipal lawyers said they believe federal courts will allow the Board of Estimate to continue to operate as usual until a new structure is approved by the voters.