Council Member Van Bramer starts a hearing (photo: @JimmyVanBramer)
On March 1, at perhaps the most important City Council hearing of the year, just three of the finance committee’s eleven members were present when the session began. The Council’s first hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $82 billion fiscal year 2017 preliminary budget began nine minutes after its scheduled time, at 10:09 a.m., more prompt than typical Council hearings. The City Council Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, arrived three minutes later, just after the finance chair, Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, wondered aloud whether the speaker would be joining in as expected.
Mark-Viverito, the key figure in negotiating budget matters with the mayor, left about 50 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another five hours after her departure. Over the course of those hours, the rest of the finance committee’s members arrived at some point, staying for different amounts of time, as did six Council members not on the committee. By the time city Comptroller Scott Stringer’s testimony began, at 4:05 p.m., Ferreras-Copeland was the only Council member there to hear him speak.
This scene is typical of City Council hearings, which regularly start more than 15 minutes later than scheduled and see limited attendance by Council members, who are tasked with writing legislation, negotiating the city budget, overseeing city agencies, and tending to a wide variety of issues in their home districts.
Gotham Gazette monitored 13 City Council hearings over a ten-day period, from late February into early March, collecting data that shows more often than not, the committee chair is the only Council member that remains to hear testimony from members of the public at the end of a hearing (7 of 13); more often than not, at least one Council member had two committee hearings scheduled for the same time (8 of 13); and committee hearings never start at their scheduled time, with the earliest start time nine minutes after the scheduled time and the latest start time 54 minutes after. The average start time of the 13 hearings was 23 minutes past scheduled start.
“We actually have multiple members who stayed for the entire hearing,” Council Member Ben Kallos said during a nearly four-hour Feb. 3 hearing he chaired on a package of legislation to raise the salaries of city elected officials, including Council members. “That is incredibly rare.”
It can be frustrating for members of the public to miss work and spend hours at committee hearings waiting for their turn to testify, only to find that most Council members have left before they’ve had a chance to speak. Yet to Council members, leaving hearings early or arriving late is often seen as necessary, either due to conflicting hearings or meetings, or to take care of something in their home districts.
“If I were to stay the whole time for every hearing…hours and hours of time would be diverted away from district meetings and staff meetings,” Council Member Ritchie Torres told Gotham Gazette, capturing a theme touched upon in several conversations with Council members about hearings.
“What substantive cross examination can you conduct in the span of two or three minutes?” Torres asked, referring to the fact that committee members are allotted a short amount of time to ask questions during hearings (multiple rounds of questions are usually allowed by the chair, though). “If I want to question a commissioner in detail, I might as well meet with them in private.”
The “real oversight” happens when a Council member runs a hearing as committee chair, Torres added. It as a sentiment voiced by multiple members Gotham Gazette spoke with about the value of hearings and hearing attendance. Many say that they rely upon the chair to conduct strong hearings and are able to be briefed by committee staff, their own staff members, and others.
The oversight that comes with conducting and attending hearings “is perhaps the key element” of Council members’ jobs, said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Yet because the City Council has “a huge amount of hearings and committees,” Russianoff says, Council members often have multiple hearings they must attend that are scheduled at the same time.
Both good government experts like Russianoff and Council members themselves say they believe the large number of committees is related to the recently-banned practice of distributing stipends, or lulus, for chairing committees, and that the number of committees should be examined and potentially reduced. “I think [the large number of committees] was a result of all the Council members wanting to get these lulus,” Russianoff said of the typically $5,000-$10,000 bonuses Council members received for their work as chairs.
“I think that with the elimination of lulus, we’ll hopefully see a reduction in the number of committees,” Kallos told Gotham Gazette. The 51-seat Council has 36 committees and six subcommittees.
With all those committees and members sitting on an average of six committees each, avoiding scheduling conflicts can be a near impossible task, particularly when hearings go on for four or five hours. Council hearings typically begin at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m.
On March 9, Council members on the Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Elections approved a resolution to "delete" the Committee on Community Development, but Council Member Brad Lander, chair of the rules committee, said “there is not a more comprehensive look [at the number of committees] underway.” Lander believes that the number of Council committees helps the Council do its legislative and oversight work better.
While the Council’s move to do away with lulus - which came in conjunction with the pay raises and other reforms - may potentially reduce the number of committees, Russianoff says that in the meantime, he “still believes” Council members’ attendance at committee hearings and the scheduling conflicts created by having so many committee hearings “is a key thing and it is something that they should deal with. It should be a top priority. It’s where they hear from and interact with city officials.”
For Council members, fulfilling their obligations to attend committee hearings, press conferences, public events, other meetings (such as leadership meetings or policy meetings), and addressing the concerns of constituents in their districts is a balancing act. The decision to miss part of a committee hearing is often the result of prioritizing time in their districts above spending hours listening to testimony.
“Most days feel like a sprint,” said Council Member Mark Levine, who represents portions of upper Manhattan. “But there’s no substitute for showing up in person, whether it’s a public event, meeting with a local leader or commissioner, a press conference, or a hearing; so as much as possible, we try to be in two places at once.”
Levine, a member of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, was able to spend just five minutes at the committee’s March 3 preliminary budget hearing. This was due to the fact that he had to chair the Committee on Parks and Recreation preliminary budget hearing held at the same time.
Generally, when Council members are unable to remain for the duration of a hearing, they have a member of their staff attend, take notes, and fill them in on key information they may have missed, or they get briefed by committee staff. Others, like Council Members Torres and Levine, catch up on what they missed by watching videos of hearings that are posted on the Council’s website, they said, or by reading through parts of written testimony.
Council members question whether spending several hours at a committee hearing is the best use of their time.
“I will confess that it’s not necessarily worthwhile to remain throughout the duration, and here’s why: I often tell people there are no committees, there are only committee chairs. When you’re a committee chair, there’s no limit to the duration or depth of your questioning,” said Torres, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Committee on Public Housing.
“Whereas if I go to another committee, I have to wait two hours to get five minutes of questioning,” Torres continued, adding that oftentimes, committee members don’t even get five minutes, because agency heads or members of the administration who testify “filibuster for three minutes…Waiting two hours for a few minutes of questioning seems like a squander of time.”
Yet it seems some Council members find there is value in spending time at committee hearings even if they’re not the chair. Council Member Kallos remained for the duration of a 40-minute Subcommittee on Landmarks hearing on Feb. 25, and showed up for an hour or more to three other hearings monitored by Gotham Gazette, though he is not a member of the committees holding those hearings.
“In fairness, those are hearings on my legislation,” Kallos said. Council members do not always attend hearings on their bills, but, Kallos says, “when my bill is being heard, a lot of the time those are people I’ve invited. It would be impolite for me to not be there.”
As Torres admits, it “can be deeply demoralizing” for members of the public to wait several hours for their chance to testify, only to find that just one or two Council members have stayed to listen to them. As almost all City Council hearings take place during normal work hours, it can be difficult for members of the public to attend hearings. Often, those who wish to testify take time off from work in order to speak before the Council.
While Council Member Steve Matteo, who represents part of Staten Island, believes attendance at hearings is important and stressed his excellent attendance record, he also said that remaining for the duration of a hearing is not usually the best use of time. “You have to ask, ‘What’s the priority that day?’ Sometime’s it’s spending time in a hearing,” Matteo told Gotham Gazette, “sometimes, I need to be in my district…it’s extremely important to be in the district.”
“I’m always asking myself what’s the most efficient use of my time, I can’t be in two or three places at once,” said Matteo (pictured), echoing a sentiment expressed by many of the Council members contacted for this story. Gotham Gazette presented about a dozen Council members or their representatives with detailed instances of their attendance during the 13 monitored hearings and those who responded typically explained their limited hearing presence with specific responsibilities they were attending to.
Remaining at hearings for the entire time “takes away from being in the district, but is a big part of what we do,” Council Member Daneek Miller explained. “The hearing part is something that I’ve committed to. I do hearings that are outside of my committees, I did consumer affairs and public safety [budget hearings] because those are issues that impact the community and you need access [to agency commissioners].”
Council Members Matteo, Levine, and Rafael Espinal all told Gotham Gazette that when there’s a hearing held on something that has a meaningful impact in their districts, they make sure to attend.
Miller did spend about an hour and a half at a March 3 housing and buildings hearing, though he is not a member of that committee. At the March 1 finance committee budget hearing, Miller arrived two and a half hours late, stayed for two hours, and then left about an hour and a half before the hearing concluded. Miller explained that he arrived around 11:30 a.m. because he was with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery for a site visit to a daycare center to promote the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion, and left early because he had meetings scheduled in his legislative office.
Matteo, Minority Leader of the Council’s three-member Republican minority, arrived 21 minutes late to the 10 a.m. Feb. 23 Committee on Health hearing because he was attending a leadership meeting elsewhere in City Hall, he said, and left before the hearing ended because he had a budget negotiating team meeting to attend.
Matteo arrived early for the 10 a.m. March 1 preliminary budget hearing held by the finance committee, and left an hour and 15 minutes after the hearing began in order to attend an 11:30 meeting with Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks and Staten Island Borough President James Oddo, he said.
Espinal arrived almost two hours after the start of the March 3 housing and buildings hearing on the preliminary budget, and left less than 20 minutes later. Espinal said he had meetings at 250 Broadway on the proposed East New York rezoning to attend. Earlier, Espinal arrived 50 minutes after the 11 a.m. Feb. 22 Committee on Housing and Buildings hearing began because he had to chair a consumer affairs committee hearing which began at 10 a.m.
“I sit on seven committees,” Espinal said. “There are many conflicting committee hearings and we have to make a decision. It’s sometimes impossible to do both.”
While Council members may come and go when they want or need to during hearings, members of the public are often left waiting hours for their chance to speak for a few minutes.
“It’s difficult for members of the public, particularly the moderate- and low-income tenants we work with,” said Emily Goldstein, senior campaign organizer for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development (ANHD), a coalition group that often testifies before the Council on housing issues. “If they want to attend, often they have to take off work and find childcare and go to great lengths,” added Goldstein, who testified at the Feb. 22 hearing held by the Committee on Housing and Buildings.
Kallos agreed that “for members of the public, it’s often frustrating to be at a multi-hour hearing with only one Council Member, while other Council members show up and leave.”
Typically at City Council hearings, representatives of the mayoral administration testify first, often giving opening remarks that run at least 10 minutes, and then are questioned by Council members, regularly for multiple hours. “It really would be good practice if we could get members of the public in more at the front, so they can participate with less disruption to their daily lives, and with more ability to be heard by their elected officials,” Goldstein said.
Council members said that they often get briefed by advocacy groups, are able to read materials sent to them, and have aides who can provide essential information to help them make decisions, craft legislation, or follow-up with an agency official.
Council Member Mark Treyger agreed the length of time mayoral administration officials spend testifying could be improved. “We ask the public to condense their statements. But some opening statements [from administration officials] run 10-, 15-, 25-minutes long, which is unnecessary…It’s sometimes redundant to hear information we’ve already been briefed on.”
Allowing the public to testify sooner or limiting the amount of time administration officials spend on their opening remarks could make testifying less difficult for regular citizens and potentially cut down on the length of committee hearings, but would do little in the way of improving Council members’ ability to attend.
The Council has actually made some strides toward reducing the number of hearings in recent years. As part of the Council’s 2014 rules reforms, spearheaded by Lander and Council Speaker Mark-Viverito, the number of times committees are required to meet per year was halved from ten to five. Some committees, like the Committee on Government Operations, need to meet more frequently than others because they have oversight of many city agencies.
But, the City Council has become busier in recent years. As Mark-Viverito wrote in a December letter submitted to the quadrennial advisory commission on elected officials’ compensation, “Council Members have already made 105% more bill and resolution drafting requests, introduced 41% more bills and enacted 32% more Local Laws than through the same time period in the immediately preceding session.” With more legislation being put forth, more hearings to introduce, consider, and vote on those bills have been needed.
Provided with information gathered by Gotham Gazette about hearing start-times and hearing attendance, a spokesperson for Mark-Viverito said that the Council is pleased with the way it is doing its business. “The City Council holds hundreds of hearings a year on issues which matter to New Yorkers and we’re very proud of our strong record,” said Eric Koch in an emailed statement. “Council Members take hearings very seriously, which is why our substantive hearings have led to countless pieces of legislation, land use and budget items being passed. The City Council looks forward to our continued work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”
Council members and good government groups alike say more can be done to improve the scheduling constraints Council members face because they are members of so many different committees. For example, Council Member Treyger needed to leave the Feb. 29 government operations hearing for about 20 minutes in order to vote in a Land Use hearing held at the same time. “Treyger has to vote for land use,” Kallos, who chairs government operations, said at the time, “we have four hearings that all of us have to be at at the same time.”
“Part of the problem is that there's too many committees,” Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, a government reform group, told Gotham Gazette. “It’s a complex issue. From the public’s point of view, they want Council members to be present when they testify. “
The recent deletion of the Committee on Community Development was prompted by the departure of Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who chaired the committee and resigned last year. After the resolution to delete the committee was approved, Council Member Lander told Gotham Gazette that Arroyo’s resignation had “occasioned a conversation, ‘Do we need to keep that committee? Is there something that’s not being covered by other committees that’s really important there?’”
Ultimately, Council members decided the Committee on Community Development was unnecessary, particularly because the committee did not have direct oversight of any specific city agency, Lander said. While several Council members told Gotham Gazette they believe the number of committees should be reduced and that some committees could be combined, Lander says further examination of the number of committees is not happening.
“I think there should be an examination of which committees are worth preserving. There are some committees where the oversight is too broad,” Torres said.
“We should probably combine committees that have overlapping jurisdiction,” Council Member Joe Borelli told Gotham Gazette. “Now that we don’t have lulus, and lulus were the reason we have so many committees, why don’t we eliminate some of them?”
Yet Lander believes the large number of committees is actually beneficial for New Yorkers, because it allows the Council to take on a wider variety of important issues, and allows Council members to hold more focused hearings that “drill down” into the details of a subject.
“There’s a balance that we want to achieve between having committees that can really dig in on important topics and not having so many committees that it’s impossible for people to attend, and that’s a real challenge,” said Lander (pictured). Lander rejected the notion of combining committees, like the Committee on Education and the Committee on Higher Education, because he believes it would reduce the amount of time and attention issues and stakeholders get.
Kallos is not in agreement with that point, saying “I continue to support reduction of committees and the elimination of lulus will make that easier.” To Kallos, who currently sits on eight committees, fewer committees may not necessarily result in fewer committee hearings, but fewer committee hearings would allow Council members to spend more time on constituent services.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is a former City Council member who works with members in her new role and at times testifies at the City Council. "I think it might help if there weren't quite as many Council committees," Brewer said in a statement. "There are always too many demands on a member's time – especially when committees are often scheduled concurrently – yet hearings are the best way to learn more about the government that's serving the people we represent. In my opinion, stopping by and signing in just isn't enough, yet that's what too many members are reduced to."
Of the dozen Council members that Gotham Gazette reached out to, two were not made available for comment, and did not provide an explanation for their attendance at committee hearings monitored for this story.
Council Member Laurie Cumbo arrived 50 minutes after the scheduled start time of the Feb. 25 Committee on Youth Services hearing, and departed 16 minutes later, though the hearing continued for another two hours after her departure.
Council Member Vincent Gentile arrived on time for a 9:30 a.m. Feb. 25 Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises hearing, though the hearing did not actually begin until 50 minutes later. By that time, Gentile had already left to attend a 10 a.m. health committee hearing on a bill of his.
Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez’s spokesperson, Russell Murphy, provided a statement saying “while attending hearings is a major part of the job, members often face competing hearings at the same time, meetings with constituents facing issues or non-profits seeking discretionary funding, district related work such as land-use meetings and more.”
Neither Murphy nor Rodriguez specified Rodriguez’s scheduling conflicts for the hearings in question. Rodriguez stepped out twice for a total of nearly four hours during the finance committee’s March 1 hearing on the preliminary budget, though he did not leave the hearing for good until 3:46, half an hour before the hearing officially ended.
It is possible that Rodriguez remained in the building and watched the hearing as it was livestreamed, as Council Member Corey Johnson said he was doing for that hearing, though Rodriguez did not clarify this when asked by Gotham Gazette. At 3:41 p.m., while the Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction was testifying, Johnson rushed back into the Council chambers to question the commissioner, apologized, and said that he was watching the testimony downstairs.
Yet “what is unseen is the hours of deliberation,” Torres warns, “Did I remain at the hearing for ten hours? No. But I wrote four memos and was deeply engaged on the issue. If you’re judging members by the lengths of attendance of the hearing, you’re developing an incomplete picture of productivity.”
Other issues, like the hours-long commute to and from City Hall for some Council members, and hearings occasionally being scheduled far apart from each other, affect Council members’ ability to attend. Sometimes, Council members are not given much advance notice of when hearings are scheduled or rescheduled, they say, hindering their ability to plan ahead as far as other meetings they have scheduled.
“One thing that I’ve noticed is different from past years is the way the schedules get done,” Council Member Miller said of recent developments. “In terms of hearings, we always knew two weeks in advance and had the calendar come out, and now sometimes, there are hearings that are on Monday morning and you get told about it on Friday.”
A number of other city officials and advocates who regularly interact with the City Council did not want to comment on the subject of Council members’ attendance at committee hearings. Asked for comment about his giving his preliminary budget testimony in front of a near-empty chamber, Comptroller Stringer declined to comment through a spokesperson.
When Gotham Gazette contacted the Department of Design and Construction’s spokesperson for a comment from Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office sent a statement via email that was unrelated to the question. Both Stringer and Peña-Mora testified at the Mar. 1 preliminary budget hearing. Six advocates who testified at some of the City Council hearings Gotham Gazette monitored also declined or ignored requests for comments.
Samar Khurshid, Maggie Calmes, and Ben Max contributed reporting to this article. Two inset photos by William Alatriste for The City Council.
Note: The committees Council members are on may have changed since Gotham Gazette monitored the hearings accounted for in this article. As noted, one committee was deleted, members’ committee assignments shifted around slightly, and Rafael Salamanca was sworn in to fill a vacant seat and assigned to several committees on March 9.
Note: this article has been updated with comment from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.