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The Senate Looks at How It Operates

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union
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The Senate Looks at How It Operates

With their majority finally solidified, the State Senate Democrats last week passed rules changes, which they say, are designed to create more legislative transparency and to balance the power rift between the majority and the minority. Even though the Democrats had moved on reform issues after years of pleading for the same courtesy from the Republican leadership, their actions were greeted with derision by some and a tempered optimism by others.

The changes reverse rules instituted by the Republicans in 2001. Good government groups like the Brennan Center for Justice hope that such amendments will lead to more transparency in the Senate, give the public more input into the legislative process and allow members of both the majority and minority to freely propose and debate legislation.

What the Rules Do

One of the new changes will allow any senator to co-sponsor a bill without permission from the author. Previously, majority senators could prohibit members of the minority from being co-sponsors of their legislation.

Another change will allow senators to file "motions of discharge" to force bills out of committee after 20 days. Previously senators would have to wait 60 days. The longer waiting period allowed the majority to easily block a bill sponsored by the minority by keeping it in committee. The minority could ask for a floor vote, but votes against allowing the legislation to move forward were not a matter of public record.

The rules changes also promote the use of technologies such as the Internet to give the public greater access to the legislative process.

These changes will all expire at the end of the year and will likely be replaced by changes recommend by the newly established Senate bipartisan temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform. The committee will have 90 days to hold hearings and make recommendations on rules changes.

Good government groups have said that, while they would have liked more aggressive action, they are happy that reforms were made and are optimistically awaiting the recommendations of the temporary Committee on Rules and Administration Reform.

Sen. Daniel Squadron, who campaigned on reform issues, said, "I am pleased we have made real changes. It might not be everything but it is a real start."

Republicans called the Democrats' proposals weak and demanded more drastic changes to balance power. "This proposal does not go far enough. Right off we're starting on the wrong foot." Sen. George H. Winner Jr. told the New York Times

Some Democrats could not help but giggle. One Democratic senator described the Republican's change of heart as "a convenient conversion," and the "height of political theater and cynicism." "At least we have put the ball on the field," the senator said. Republicans had moved on rules changes in the past. An amendment in 2005 left Democrats displeased.

Equal Treatment?

Republicans have made a fuss over amount of money they will receive to run and staff their offices. They have been pushing legislation that would require equal resources for every legislator. Majority Leader Malcolm Smith responded to the complaints on Monday by guaranteeing that every senator would have a budget of at least $350,000. During the years of Republican control, some Democratic senators were allocated less than $300,000. One staffer said his office never got more than $350,000, and he knew of senators who didn't get $200,000. "In New York City," said the staffer, "that meant two staffers."

The treatment they received from the Republican majority remains fresh in the minds of Democratic senators and their staffers. They don't need to think back far to remember inconveniences like having simple supply orders -- for items from toilet paper to Styrofoam cups to furniture and paper -- take weeks to arrive, or making do on a budget one quarter the size of their Republican counterparts. They can remind themselves of bigger issues such as being effectively powerless to challenge the majority party on legislation or having their mailings to constituents censored.

Some Democratic staffers take a bit of satisfaction in seeing the new minority in their old shoes. One called the Democrats' treatment at the hands of the Republican majority "insulting and repressive." And yet he said he fully expected the new majority to aggressively pursue rules changes -- to increase the ability for the minority to introduce and challenge legislation and to create more transparency in the legislative process.

Another Democratic staffer said the new majority has no reason not to "do what is right." A number of staffers pointed out that, while the rules became more "repressive" as Republicans began to lose their majority over the past decade, the Democrats feel they are in a solid position with control of the Senate, Assembly and governor's mansion. As one put it, "We don't have to play those games."

Hoping For More

While good government groups are pleased with the changes, in some cases they hope to see more decisive action. One activist said, "The fact that the Democrats didn't have a leader until last Wednesday had a major impact. They were scrambling. They didn't have an agreement in place to do anything more aggressive."

They are now looking to the temporary committee on rules. The Brennan Center, Common Cause, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, the League of Women Voters, and New York Public Interest Research Group released a joint memo asking for language that would authorize the temporary committee to reflect five specific issues:

--strengthening standing committees by granting them greater independence;

--allowing individual members to introduce legislation on the floor

--creating opportunity for adequate review of proposed bills;

--providing members with sufficient resources to fund their office and research legislation; and

-- making legislative records immediately available to the public on the Internet.

Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, said she feels confident the Democratic majority will address these issues, and noted that a number of members of the majority have "spontaneously expressed their deep interest in reform."

Tempered Expectations

The list of members named to the rules and administration reform committee gives some reform proponents hope, as it includes a number of senators known for their commitment to rules changes. The committee is co-chaired by Democratic Sen. David Valesky and Republican Sen. John Bonacic. As of press time the others are Squadron, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Jeff Klein, Jose Serrano and Liz Krueger. All but Stewart-Cousins, who is from Westchester, represent New York City districts. Minority Leader Dean Skelos will sit on the committee along with fellow Republican Senators Joe Griffo and George Winner.

However, other issues could interfere with the temporary committee. As Squadron pointed out, "Ninety days during the biggest budget season is not a lot of time."

Meanwhile, Krueger may not remain on the committee. According to several sources, she thinks her work as vice chair of the Finance Committee might interfere with her ability to play an active role on the reform committee and so she has asked to be replaced. An official announcement will likely be made in the near future.

Krueger's absence would concerns activists, as she has consistently been one of the most outspoken members of the Senate on the issue of rules reform. Krueger filed a lawsuit against the majority over alleged censorship in 2006. According to Krueger and co-plaintiff Republican Assemblyman Thomas Kirwan, then Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver censored outgoing constituent mailings-making it impossible for members of the minority party to criticize the majority.

Lerner said that while a number of members of the temporary committee are strong advocates for reform, "I think her [Krueger's] colleagues would agree she has spent the most time delving into the issue."

Beyond the Committee

Of greater concern to many advocates, though, are issues beyond the purview of the committee including campaign finance reform, redistricting and the way elections are held. Some insiders said say they expect the Senate to tackle those issues after the budget issue is addressed.

Lerner said she has one challenge for the committee on reform as well as for the Senate as a whole. She would like to see the Senate adopt the committee's rules proposals this year rather than waiting for the rules that were adopted this year to expire. She does not want the issue to get lost during what is sure to be a hectic legislative session.

That request is something committee member Squadron does not think is unreasonable, "We can't wait more than a year. We are not some task force that will make recommendations that will wind up sitting at the bottom of a drawer. The Senate will take action on our recommendations."



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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Show Up

By Andrew S. Eristoff

Let's face it: City Council is not exactly the Senate of the Roman Republic. Debate in the council is limited and banal. Hearings can be lengthy exercises in frustration, listening to council members opine on complicated matters about which they haven't a clue. The mayor dominates city government and gets most of the press attention. And when the cameras and the reporters do show up, the posturing is nauseating.

But those fortunate enough to get elected and take office in the new City Council on January 1, 2002, will have the privilege of helping to govern the largest and most complex city in America. It is a "job" unlike any other.

For those you who do take office, you no doubt already have a good idea of what to expect, but perhaps the following bits of insight will prove helpful as you transition into your new role.

GENERAL ADVICE

1. TWO NEW JOBS, NOT ONE.
The 1990 Charter Revision turned what had been a neo-Classical gathering place for part-time community ombudsmen into something approaching a real legislative body with important land use and budget powers. As a consequence, you need to know that you will in fact have two distinct jobs: community ombudsman and quasi-legislator. You will discover a surprising lack of overlap between your two roles. How you apportion your time will be a function of your interests, your political needs, and your community's expectations. Some successful council members focus exclusively on their communities and never play a major role at City Hall. Others spend almost all their time focused on matters at City Hall and let their staff deal with constituent services and community events.

2. NEW YORK IS A BIG PLACE.
One of the wonderful things about serving in the council is that it forces you to appreciate the breathtaking size and diversity of New York City. You and your 50 colleagues will constitute a remarkably accurate cross-section of the strengths, weaknesses, hopes, biases, and priorities of New York's many communities. My advice: get out and see the rest of New York. Join a colleague for a meal in his or her district and reciprocate. The experience will make you a more informed participant in the council's business, especially as you deal with land use matters and set budget priorities.

3. ENJOY YOUR COLLEAGUES WHILE YOU CAN.
Take a good look around. Just as some of your new colleagues will go on to serve in Congress and become internationally prominent figures, there's a reasonable chance that one or more will eventually face scandal or indictment and perhaps even go to jail. Either way, most are interesting people you'll want to get to know before you part ways.

4. MAINTAIN A BALANCED LIFE.
Some politicians feel that they must attend every political or community event in their district. Ridiculous. You should protect your private time, especially if you have a family. Early on in my term I decided that I would generally not be available for weekend events. It worked out; no one in my community complained. Your district may have a different set of expectations, so make and stick to your own rules accordingly.

4. SHOW UP.
A lot of your record as a council member will depend on luck, chance, and forces beyond your control. Making the effort to show up for work, however, is within your control. No one loses votes by saying, "I have a 100 percent attendance record." It's easy. Do it.

AN EFFECTIVE CONSTITUENT OPERATION

As a council member, you will receive enough money to hire a small staff and maintain a district office. Make creating an effective constituent operation a priority. It is not just good political insurance. Whether you represent the richest or the poorest district in the city, you will have vulnerable constituents who deserve and need your help.

5. CHOOSE A GOOD CHIEF OF STAFF.
Your choice of chief of staff will be absolutely critical. A good chief of staff does more than simply manage a small office. He or she should have the ability to represent you in public and manage sensitive political issues on your behalf. A chief of staff should be able to "read" developing issues before they explode in your face, assess whether they pose political risks or opportunities, and coordinate your response. Another consideration: do you want your chief of staff to be your primary policy and budget aide, or will you hire another person to help cover the City Hall stuff?

6. YOUR CONSTITUENT CASE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM.
After choosing a chief of staff, waste no time in organizing your constituent case management system. Although some council members use custom or commercial constituent case tracking software that includes a database and word processing capabilities complete with supervisory review and "tickler" functions, most use a basic database and traditional paper-based files. You can start a basic database by obtaining a copy of your district's voter file from the Board of Elections (expensive, but worth it) and importing it into a desktop database program such as Microsoft Access. As constituents contact your office, your staff should add information such as issue codes. This is tedious, but important. In a surprisingly short period of time, you will develop excellent mini-mailing lists on key local issues. In addition to the constituent database, you should take the extra time to develop office procedures for managing constituent cases. For instance, decide early on whether you or your chief of staff will review all inbound and outbound correspondence, or whether you will insist on signing all outbound letters in your name. For what it's worth, I reviewed all inbound correspondence and trusted my staff to sign routine referral letters over my name.

7. WHAT TO EXPECT IN YOUR CONSTITUENT OFFICE.
Your district office will perform two related functions: first, your staff will perform constituent "casework," i.e. helping individuals with problems deal with a specific bureaucracy and, second, your office will deal with larger community issues, such as zoning disputes. Although every district is different, a high proportion of your constituent casework will likely involve social services and housing. At a minimum, you and your staff will need to know the basics of how the relevant programs work. For instance, in the housing area you must be familiar with the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption (SCRIE) Program, the School Tax Relief (STAR) property tax exemption and how the State Division of Housing and Community Renewal (DHCR) administers the Emergency Tenant Protection Act. DHCR will soon become the bane of your poor staff members' existence. Similarly, you will probably find that a majority of community issues somehow touch upon land use, transportation or (lack of) code enforcement. It is important that you take the time to understand City Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) well. Also, become familiar with the names of the beleaguered Department of Transportation staff members who will help you respond to hundreds of problems each year. Similarly, as a pattern of complaints emerges you should become familiar with the basic state or local laws that apply, whether it is rodent infestation, noisy bars, illegal vending, building code violations, noise, or dumping. I found that getting a subscription to a copy of the Administrative Code and the Rules of the City of New York on CD-ROM was useful, but then I am the kind of person who likes such things.

8. SUPER CONSTITUENTS.
After a few months, you will begin to notice that the same 200 or so people run the various organizations, serve on the Community Boards or Precinct Community Councils, and attend most of the meetings in your district. These individuals are your "super constituents," and you should regard them as a resource. Most give of their time because they truly care about the community. You may have been one of them, so you should know. Chances are, if you treat them with respect, they will help you serve the community by providing advice and useful intelligence regarding sensitive issues. They can also help you reach out to others.

9. DON'T TAKE A POSITION ON EVERY ISSUE.
Don't make the common mistake of feeling compelled to take a position on every controversial community issue. It may sound too calculating, but remember: every time you take a firm public position on a bitter local issue, you will please some people and anger some others. The former will remain pleased until you disappoint them with some other decision; the latter are likely lost to you forever. So choose your battles.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

10. DEALING WITH AUTHORITY.
Although term limits has radically altered the internal dynamics of the City Council, as a new member the chances are that you will not immediately rise to a senior chairmanship. You will need to work with "the leadership" --- manifest in a traditional Speaker's Office or perhaps, now, in a collection of political mandarins --- to obtain favorable committee assignments, obtain budget funds for personal priorities, and pass legislation. Strong leadership is arguably essential if the city council as an institution is to deal equally with the mayor and his administration. Trouble is, thanks to his vast institutional powers, the mayor will always dominate city government, and you'll need the administration's cooperation to be responsive to your constituents' day-to-day concerns. That being said, I've never heard of the voters tossing a council member for fighting with the mayor. Even if the same political party controls the city council and the mayoralty, the institutional rivalry will be a constant feature of your political life. So you have choices: (a) stick with the leadership, and risk the administration's lack of cooperation from time to time, (b) support the administration, and risk becoming a pariah among your colleagues, (c) play the principled iconoclast and earn a place on everyone's enemies list, or (d) try to find a happy median. Think twice before picking (d), as there are plenty of examples of iconoclasts and others who went on to very successful political careers.

11. TREAT THE STAFF WELL.
Trust me, they know more than you do. Although the arrogance of some will be truly annoying, the better tactic is to treat them with respect. They will reciprocate in kind.

12. UNDERSTAND THE LAND USE PROCESS.
I said it before, and I'll say it again: LEARN ULURP. Fight to get on the Land Use Committee. Ask for a briefing with the council's excellent Land Use Division staff to review pending issues in your district. This is the meat of your job.

13. UNDERSTAND THE WITNESS.
When I was in the city council, I had no idea of just how little we knew about the real operations of the agencies that appeared before us. Yes, we had briefing papers and staff-prepared questions, but in reality we rarely did more than skate along the surface. The result, I must now confirm, is that commissioners (and other witnesses) tend to regard council members as both laughably uninformed and quite unpredictable, in that some regularly waste their limited questioning time to focus on extraneous or obscure matters that have little to do with an agency's primary functions. Although some members thrive on verbal judo with hostile witnesses, I believe you may actually learn, and ultimately accomplish, more by inviting the witness to share information or insights on a program or issue. If you are inclined to go for the kill, try giving the witnesses enough rope to hang themselves.

14. CONSIDER AN ISSUE FOCUS.
One way to make a distinction is to become something of an expert on a particular issue: animal rights, child health, mass transit, technology, education --- whatever. By "expert" I mean simply more knowledgeable than most of your colleagues, which on many issues is not going to be a very high bar. Pick an issue that truly interests you. You will find it an enormous help in maintaining your enthusiasm for the process, even in the face of endless and excruciatingly boring committee hearings.

15. USE LOBBYISTS AS RESEARCH RESOURCES.

The popular press tends to characterize lobbyists as the corrupting tools of special interests. In fact, "public affairs professionals" come in all flavors, from poverty advocates to major real estate developers, and the good ones will be among your best sources of information. As a council member, you and your staff will simply not be able to perform independent research on every important issue. You will have to rely on trusted outsiders. An effective lobbyist is not afraid to explain both sides of an issue, or to describe the larger context, because he or she knows that credibility is the currency that counts in the long run.

In closing, please know that you are about to embark on a wonderful experience unlike any ordinary "job". Yes, there will be many frustrations and difficult challenges. But serving in elective office is a rare privilege that carries with it an opportunity to make a real contribution to the city and your community. You've only got two terms, at most --- make the most of them!

Andrew S. Eristoff is Commissioner of the New York City Department of Finance. From 1993 until 1999, he represented district 4 on the Upper East Side in the New York City Council.

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Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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