City Council chambers (Sofie Hecht for Gotham Gazette)
Hundreds of times a year, City Council members vote on pieces of legislation, including the city’s budget, land use matters, and a wide variety of bills and resolutions. Members almost always vote “yes” or “no.” But sometimes, Council members choose to abstain, actively deciding not to declare they are for or against what is in front of them, and in the 51-seat City Council, abstentions are used by members to widely varying degrees.
In the New York State Assembly, lawmakers may only abstain from a vote when doing so would constitute a conflict of interest. In the New York City Council, however, lawmakers must abstain from a vote if there is a legitimate conflict of interest, but may abstain for other personal or political reasons as well. This leeway has led to some interesting voting patterns. Of the Council’s current 51 members, 34 did not abstain from a vote during this iteration of the Council, which began in January of 2014, through May 12, 2016. The other 17 Council members have abstained between one and 103 times.
At Gotham Gazette’s request, data on all votes from the current Council session -- January 2014 to May 12, 2016 -- was scraped from the City Council website by NYC Councilmatic and DataMade, a civic technology company.
City Council Member Ruben Wills, who has been indicted on corruption charges and also dealing with health issues, has abstained 103 times. Wills, who has also been declared absent for many votes, which is different from abstaining, declined to comment when contacted. The second most abstentions over the two year-plus period was by Council Member Jumaane Williams, who abstained 36 times. Council Members Andy King and Inez Barron abstained 21 times each, and Council Member Rosie Mendez abstained 14 times.
The other 13 Council members who abstained during the tabulated time period did so between one and four times.
(Note: some Council members abstained on the same bill or issue brought up at different times, like in committee and at the full Council. Bills must pass through committee, then the full Council to go to the Mayor’s desk.)
Two-thirds of Council members did not abstain from a single vote during the period studied. Two of those Council members who spoke with Gotham Gazette expressed similar opinions about the importance of voting, citing conflict-of-interest as the lone justifiable exception for abstaining. Council members who have abstained gave a variety of explanations when asked.
“I have one job. That job is to vote,” said City Council Member Ben Kallos, who has not abstained on a vote since joining the Council in 2014. “It is the one power, the one privilege that I have that no one else has and I take it seriously, and come to a decision every time. I was elected by the people to vote and for constituents to know where I stand on these issues.”
Nine Council members who have abstained on at least one vote gave reasons to Gotham Gazette, including: being supportive of part of but not the whole bill, and believing the bill needs more work, but not opposed to the concept enough to warrant a “no” vote; concern about the unintended consequences of a bill; needing additional time to review the legislation and/or gather feedback from constituents; deference to colleagues; and avoiding making a politically unwise move.
“I imagine there are three reasons for abstaining,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres, who has not abstained since joining the Council in 2014. “You might abstain out of ethics: you have a conflict of interest. Or you might abstain out of politics: you wish to avoid making a politically inexpedient vote. Or you might abstain out of ambivalence about the merits of the vote in question.”
Of those three, Torres continued, “the only sensible justification is ethics,” the other two are “insufficient justifications for abstaining.”
Council Members Mark Treyger and Alan Maisel have both abstained only once, on a 2014 bill that eventually resulted in the creation of the city’s IDNYC municipal identification card program. Treyger and Maisel, both former educators, were supportive of the policy, but had concerns about the way the data gathered to create ID cards for potentially undocumented immigrants would be stored, and who might have access to that data.
During a hearing on the bill, “Maisel and I asked about the security and the storage of the names of the applicants when they apply for the card, who holds it, who stores it, and is this information accessible by the Department of Homeland Security,” Treyger told Gotham Gazette. “The answer was ‘yes,’ we were told they have to store the information for a number of years, and it can get turned over to the [federal] government.”
“I quite frankly did not feel comfortable with these answers, so I abstained as a sign of a lack of confidence with the security and protection of the names, but I didn’t reject it as a whole, because I did advocate for resident discount cards for New Yorkers,” Treyger added.
Both Maisel and Treyger said that their previous experience as educators had shown them that some immigrant parents were deeply concerned about sharing information, and the two Council members were worried that information gathered for IDNYC cards could end up in the wrong hands.
“For example,” Maisel said, they would essentially end up creating a list for “a certain presidential candidate who could possibly become elected president, and we know where he stands on people who are undocumented,” in obvious reference to Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has talked about rounding up undocumented immigrants for deportation.
Five Council Members abstained on a recent bill to limit the space in which costumed characters and other performers can operate in Times Square. The five members who abstained on the bill are all members of the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus: Andy King, Rosie Mendez, Inez Barron, Vanessa Gibson, and Antonio Reynoso (Robert Cornegy Jr., also a member of the BLAC, was the lone “no” vote on the bill).
Mendez and King said that they chose not to vote “yes” or “no” on the bill because King had introduced a similar bill back in 2014, yet neither King nor his bill were included in the drafting and passage of the new bill, introduced by Council Member Corey Johnson.
“When multiple Council members have ideas for the same or similar legislation, they will combine the Council members,” Mendez said. King had proposed the legislation years ago, Mendez said, but “King was never asked, never told anything, and his bill was disregarded.”
“When I didn’t see Andy’s name on it, I decided to abstain,” Mendez continued, adding that she did not have a chance to compare Johnson’s bill against King’s bill to see how similar or dissimilar they were. “At the end of the day I had real concern about..the role of community boards not being included in the legislation.”
“It got a little personal, so I chose not to vote on it, because I believed still more work needed to be done,” King said of Intro-1109, the pedestrian plaza bill, which is now law.
“As you know, I started this conversation in 2014,” King continued, “and I thought it didn’t play well in the Council for other Council members to pass something without inclusion of legislation that was already in the queue to address that…I chose not to participate rather than saying “no” to this one, I wanted to work to put more teeth in it.”
A spokesperson for Council Member Antonio Reynoso said that he abstained (his only abstention over the two-plus year period examined for this article) due to concern about “potential unintended consequences of the bill. However, many members and advocates that we work with regularly and whose judgment we trust were for it, so he didn’t want to go against it either. Instead he opted not to take a formal position.”
Council Members Gibson and Barron were not made available for comment, despite numerous requests.
NOT THE WHOLE PACKAGE
Occasionally, Council members will abstain from voting on a bill because they do not entirely approve of it (whether it is due to what they see as potential unintended consequences or simply falling short of what would be ideal for their constituents).
For example, Mendez abstained on one of two controversial changes to city land use rules (Zoning for Quality and Affordability, or ZQA) in committee because she felt that “recent contextual rezoning that happened in the last ten years should've been kept intact.”
Yet, Council members “made changes, so I didn't feel it merited a “no” vote,” she said. “But they didn't make enough changes to get me to a “yes.” So I abstained….it wasn’t completely wrong, it wasn’t completely right, so I felt like that was the appropriate vote.”
To Doug Muzzio, professor of political science at Baruch College, occasionally abstaining on a vote because some elements of the bill warrant a positive vote, but some warrant a negative vote “makes a great deal of sense.”
“But,” Muzzio continued, “Ruben Wills abstaining 103 times indicates that he’s a very confused Council member, and a very conflicted Council member.”
“An excessive amount of abstentions,” Muzzio said, suggests “that he doesn’t have very clear ideas in his mind of how to asses a policy so he takes the easy way out, which is abstaining.”
At other times, Council members may choose to abstain, as King puts it, “as a professional courtesy to my colleagues, as opposed to saying that we’re not all on the same page.” “Unless it’s something that has a really, really devastating impact on my constituents,” King added.
Abstaining out of deference seems to occur more often in the context of a vote on land use items, where the Council is known to defer to the local member whose district is directly involved. “I have abstained usually land use items that are in a particular member's’ district,” Mendez said. “I would have otherwise voted “no,” but in deference to the Council member of that district I will abstain.”
This is because, as Mendez puts it, “I really feel like I know my district better than anyone else…Likewise, I’m not sitting in on all the minutiae of what [another Council member is] trying to negotiate for their district.”
But as Torres sees it, “land use is the only context which a rank-and-file Council member can emerge as a counterweight to the Mayor’s Office,” and abstaining in land use out of deference to another Council member means those members who abstain “are enjoying the benefits of local deference themselves while denying the benefit to everyone else. There’s a word for this - parasitic.”
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s parasitic,” Torres continued. “It’s not inaction, you are actively undermining the Council as an institution and…reaping the benefit of local deference to yourself while denying it to your colleagues.” For Torres, the only valid reason for choosing not to vote “should be ethics.”
NOT ENOUGH TIME
On April 14, Council Member Jumaane Williams abstained on a vote on the East New York rezoning plan in subcommittee, only to change his vote to a “yes” when the same bill was heard in the Land Use committee less than an hour later.
“I just got the final plan this morning. I want to make sure to review it properly,” Williams said at the time when asked by Gotham Gazette. “At first glance, it looks good. I’m still a little concerned about MIH [Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, the companion land use change to ZQA], but there wasn’t much more you could ask him [Council Member Rafael Espinal] to do. That’s why I changed my vote to a “yes” in Land Use.”
“I will vote “yes” on the floor,” Williams said, and did. “There’s obviously people left out of the plan. We have to figure out how to address that. But with the tools at his disposal, I think [Espinal] did the best that he could.”
According to Travis Lamprecht, a spokesperson for Council Member Vincent Gentile (who has abstained four times), the Council Member “will choose to do so when he needs additional time to gather feedback from his district in order to make an educated decision for his constituents.” Gentile has abstained twice on land use matters; once on Williams’ 2014 bill to prohibit discrimination when hiring based on a person’s arrest record; and once on Council Member Helen Rosenthal’s 2014 bill in relation to traffic violations and serious crashes and license suspension.
EXPLAINING ON THE FLOOR
Council Members Brad Lander and Helen Rosenthal, both of whom have not abstained in the aggregated period, declined to comment for this story. Council Members Vanessa Gibson (four abstentions), Inez Barron (21), Robert Cornegy (four), Andrew Cohen (four), I. Daneek Miller (two), Eric Ulrich (two), Chaim Deutsch (two), Darlene Mealy (one), and Paul Vallone (one) all were not made available for comment, despite numerous attempts.
It should be noted that abstaining is different from “non-voting,” which can occur when a Council member is not present for the vote. Council members may also be marked as “excused” from voting for medical reasons, or for jury duty, parental leave, and bereavement.
Vallone’s only abstention was on legislation prohibiting Council members from earning most forms of outside income and making the position of Council member full-time (one of Deutsch’s two abstentions was also for this legislation).
Ulrich's two abstentions were on bills introduced by Brad Lander requiring the NYC Commission on Human rights to perform an employment discrimination investigation and a housing discrimination investigation.
Three of Gibson's four abstentions occurred on April 7, 2016 (on the pedestrian plaza bill, on a bill to increase penalties for illegal street hails at the city's airports and other designated areas, and on a bill to create a universal license for taxicab and for-hire vehicle drivers and require that English language proficiency not be assessed through a written exam).
“Abstaining can mean several things,” as Muzzio said, but “one should always explain an abstention, because in a sense, it’s a chicken[expletive] vote, meaning it’s a way to evade a hard choice.”
“Ultimately,” says Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, “the voters are the judge, because their interest is what is supposed to be represented.”
“City Council members are accountable to the people who elect them, and it’s important for the public to know if a Council member chooses not to vote on an issue that a constituent thinks is important,” Horner said. “The Council member should have to explain it.”
When abstaining, Council members occasionally give a brief explanation for their vote.
“We are giving Department of Transportation the authority to justify the complete removal of costumed characters from Times Square,” Reynoso said during an April vote on the pedestrian plaza bill. “Should it lead to unintended consequences...we would be left with little recourse outside of legislation to undo any action,” he added, expressing concern over the potential tension and competition that could arise should the costumed characters in Times Square be “corralled” into the proposed spaces, and he abstained.
“This has been a very important process, not perfect, but better than when it started,” Mendez said during the March vote on rezoning plans. “I think some of the Voluntary Inclusionary Zones could have been made mandatory…And I'm not happy with the fact that we are getting some height increases in the non-contextual zones,” but, Mendez continued, “since some work was done on this, and I feel that it is important to have a mandate inclusionary housing, I will be voting “yes”” on two pieces of legislation and “abstaining on LU 335 and the accompanying Reso 1023.”
ABSTENTION DATA, provided by Councilmatic and DataMade
Council members and number of abstentions from the current session, January 2014 to May 12, 2016
Ruben Wills 103
Jumaane Williams 36
Inez Barron 21
Andy King 21
Rosie Mendez 14
Andrew Cohen 4
Vincent Gentile 4
Robert Cornegy 4
Vanessa Gibson 4
Chaim Deutsch 2
Eric Ulrich 2
I. Daneek Miller 2
Mark Treyger 1
Paul Vallone 1
Alan Maisel 1
Darlene Mealy 1
Antonio Reynoso 1
Ben Kallos 0
Ritchie Torres 0
Brad Lander 0
Helen Rosenthal 0
Steven Matteo 0
Margaret Chin 0
Peter Koo 0
Fernando Cabrera 0
Costa Constantinides 0
Elizabeth Crowley 0
Laurie Cumbo 0
Inez Dickens 0
Daniel Dromm 0
Rafael Espinal 0
Mathieu Eugene 0
Julissa Ferreras-Copeland 0
Dan Garodnick 0
Barry Grodenchik 0
Karen Koslowitz 0
Stephen Levin 0
Mark Levine 0
Melissa Mark-Viverito 0
Carlos Menchaca 0
Annabel Palma 0
Ydanis Rodriguez 0
Donovan Richards 0
Deborah Rose 0
James Vacca 0
Jimmy Van Bramer 0
Joe Borelli 0
Rafael Salamanca - 0
*Maria Carmen del Arroyo, Vincent Ignizio, and Mark Weprin also served as Council Members during this session before resigning and being replaced by Salamanca, Borelli, and Grodenchik, respectively, though none of the three abstained on any vote during the aggregated period.